The Incomers by Moira McPartlin
My main concern, before I began to read this book, was, “How could a white woman write convincingly about a black woman facing racial prejudice?” But Moira McPartlin has done just that. Despite its flaws, her new novel, The Incomers, succeeds in giving a sympathetic and authentic voice to Ellie, one of the incomers of the title. The novel starts with the end of her plane journey from West Africa, as she approaches Edinburgh from on high. Holding her baby, Nat, close to her, she prays that they will arrive safely to meet her white Scottish husband, James.
Set in 1966, the novel charts Ellie’s emotional journey in a strange, unwelcoming environment steeped in ignorance and prejudice. James is factor to the local estate owner in a small mining village in Fife, which is to be Ellie’s new home. The father of her child, he met Ellie in her homeland, where they married and where she gave birth. One of the village women describes Nat as “[b]lack as coal”, whilst the other refers to Jamesas “that braw bit boy wi’ the blond hair”. In addition to the racial prejudice, which at the time equated black people with monkeys and apes, Ellie faces obstacles that alienate her at every turn. The cold, damp weather and lack of fruit in the local shop are nothing compared to the villagers’ unwillingness to broaden their outlook. In this context, breast feeding in public was akin to parading about in the nude, and treating ailments with local herbs was considered a form of witchcraft. The novel explores the culture shock that hits hard on both sides of the racial divide, with Ellie’s somewhat conservative husband sitting precariously on the fence.
Mission-raised Ellie is a forthright, determined character, unbowed by the coldness that many of the locals convey towards her. When she feels ready, and despite James’s gentle protests, she cycles to the village shop, takes a bus ride into the nearest town and befriends the estate owners’ housemaid and gardener. The villagers are either polite from a distance or openly nasty, but such treatment only serves to strengthen Ellie’s resolve.
The end of each chapter is punctuated with a dialogue entitled “The Pairty Line”, in which two unnamed women let rip with the latest gossip in Scots demotic: Ellie is a “big bloody black wumman” or “the coon”. Ellie’s mother-in-law is a character made real by her absence. When the phone rings, Ellie knows who it is, and when she finally does speak to her husband’s mother, the reply is cold and clipped. Although James occasionally visits his mother in Perth, she does not meet her daughter-in-law or grandson, because, as Ellie knows, “[b]lack is not the colour of a Perth bride”.
Set against the backdrop of social hierarchies, religious sectarianism and the daily risk of death in the mines, the narrative attempts to ease – if not bridge – the various cultural divides. Ellie tries to connect with her environment and with the people, and in so doing lays to rest a few of her own demons. The latter are somewhat hazily portrayed, as the novel attempts to make connections between Ellie’s African past and her Scottish present. The third-person narrative is at times too detached, but McPartlin manages to give a moving account of Ellie’s sense of ambivalence that emerges from a crosscontinental and interracial union based on love. By the end, the villagers’ suspicion has turned to reluctant acceptance. The future of Ellie and her family lies open, a challenge to the reader to question the past and change the future.
Fledgling Press Ltd, rrp £9•99, 294pp