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Blood and Gold

Written by Mara Menzies, illustrated by Eri Griffin 

(Birlinn, 2021)

Review by Bashabi Fraser


When her mother Rehami dies of cancer, Jeda’s first reaction is disbelief, followed by inexplicable rage. The little eight-year-old girl feels betrayed by a mother who had always promised to be with her and look after her, but has now left, breaking her promise. This story begins with loss, but it soon becomes evident that it is about much more than that. It is about love, and a mother’s wish to give her daughter everything that will give her strength and dignity. These qualities can only come with a full knowledge of her heritage, of who she is and where she comes from, and of the wrongs that her people have suffered, marring any true estimation of their culture and achievements. 

Jeda’s Scottish father Chris is wrapped up in his own world of scientific research, leaving the girl to her own devices. He believes her outward calm is evidence of an inner strength, which allows her to cope with the absence of the bonding thread that was her mother. The loneliness that Jeda feels is pervasive. In school, she faces racism as a little black girl, retaliates and is accused of unruly behaviour. 

As uncertainty grips her, Jeda feels a new presence – fearful, cold and invasive. This is the Shadowman, who lurks in the interstices of her weakest moments and her many insecurities, taking hold of her better instincts and trying to dominate her life. The Shadowman dwells in each character in the book, waiting to pounce when courage and hope are at their lowest ebb.  

When Rehami the storyteller dies, she does not abandon her daughter, but leaves a precious part of herself – her memories and those of her people – in a parting gift to Jeda. On the surface, the gift looks like an ordinary wooden box. And yet, it is a treasure trove of stories which, as Rehami tells Jeda, she can open when she feels an urgent need to – especially when the Shadowman seems overpowering. Such moments come more than once in the novel, unfolding stories with multiple narrators that can be heartrending but end up instilling hope.

The thirteen chapters in this 175 page-turner enumerate the story of slavery, the devastation of the African continent by colonial domination and exploitation, and the bravery and talent of men and women in the face of undeserved suffering – stories of resistance and resilience that arouse a sense of pride in their descendants. We learn about sacrifice, hardship, betrayal, survival and the power of love. Mara Menzies proves to be a consummate storyteller. In this, her first novel, she pulls the reader into worlds where the past comes alive and the reader, like Jeda, becomes an invisible witness to unfolding events that are both historical and magical. The experience is empowering.

Mara Menzies weaves her golden skein of stories in Blood and Gold through once prosperous villages, bustling market towns, brisk trading ports, shimmering desert sands, beckoning mirages and verdant forests, crossing continents and seas. Ultimately, we are always brought back to encounter the current reality of a daughter learning of her roots, a father coming close to his daughter, and an aunty who nurtures and nurses her niece through illness and delirium, becoming in turn a fresh source of unforgettable stories. 

Blood and Gold: A Journey of Shadows, winner of Saltire Society’s Fiction Book of the Year Prize, 2022, covers themes that remain relevant to us today – racism, prejudice and belonging. Yet what Menzies offers is not a moralistic tale. The clever, magical realist blend of narrative devices allows legend and myth to hold inescapable truths in their kernel. It is a story that needs to be told in its entirety, retrieving the past to bolster the present and build an enduring future.

The illustrations in the book are powerful in their inky suggestiveness. They move from the initial image of a fleeing Jeda, scrambling down the stairs in an attempt to run away from reality, to the final image of her standing upright, head held high, breathing in the air, hands confidently in her pockets, looking relaxed. She stands tall on top of a hill, clouds floating past, monarch of all she surveys, on top of the world, her world. This is the world that Menzies so compellingly brings alive in Blood and Gold, taking us all back to the comfort and security of ourselves. With its appeal to all ages, this is a tour de force that is captivating and magical.

Photo by Robin Mair