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Rachel Eliza Griffiths 

John Murray Press (2023)


Review by Peter Kalu


The 1980s case of ‘the Silent Twins’ plagued me. They were two black sisters who got into arson and did not talk to anyone, developed a silent language between themselves and got life in Broadmoor. It was Black sisterhood as pathology and fed into the national psyche the corrosive idea of the disturbed black woman, and it rippled outwards. ‘Are you going all Silent Twin on me?’ a white colleague would say, if I refused to answer any more of their dumb questions. 

And it got to me on another level. The story of those two girls made me nervous of any similar signs in my own sisters. ‘I’m going to kill you’ when I stole my sister’s piece of toast took on a completely new meaning. Luckily, my sisters were the opposite of silent, they talked effortlessly and incessantly. 

It was from this distorted psychological space that I began to read Promise by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. It features two young sisters who are close in age. In the early chapters, I felt unease – scenes were being described that with a quick plot twist could go high-grade dysfunctional. Or complete Hitchcock. To my great relief, the author swerves this path and instead goes on to deliver an in-depth study in sisterhood. 

Watching the interplay of emotions between the sisters as they navigate an East Coast ‘sundown town’, where people of colour are not welcome after dark and drip-fed racism explodes into violence against the backdrop of a burgeoning civil rights movement, is a bitter-sweet experience. The sisters show fear, bravery, longing, whimsy and exhilaration, but also courage and imagination – they take off as characters. This exhibits an aspect of Griffiths’ craft as a black writer that is worth dwelling on.

Stuart Hall in Representation (1997) argues we cannot escape stereotypes, they are too hard-wired into the signs and systems of meaning in society, so all we can do is navigate them – take a position against them, or that undermines them, or that explodes them from within. For what it’s worth, Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One (1979) argues similarly that patriarchy is baked into the language, both at an individual word level and at the level of grammar and syntax, to the extent that every act of feminist writing has to wrestle with this in-built bias. For black women and girls, the main stereotypes on offer from racist society are the tragic mulatto, the Mammy and the Amazon fighter. If I conduct a thought experiment and flip the genders of the novel i.e. if the two sisters were two brothers, how would the novel then play out? 

What marks Griffiths’ handling of her characters is the collaborative emphasis between the sisters, their tenderness and thoughtfulness. Would they have been written so finely and would those elements have survived had they been two brothers? Or, would the primary stereotype imposed on young black masculinity – the violent Buck – have leaked into the text, and would that gun (the one that appears in black hands early on the novel but which never goes off) have been fired? Strategies of resistance sometimes require patient skill as much as rebellion and confrontation.

When ‘the Silent Twins’ is a metaphor for black people in white society, it is because the pressures of that society operate to distort the black soul, and can cause trauma and sometimes a pathological reaction. The sisters of Promise undergo these extreme stresses and deal with them admirably. We are all ‘the Silent Twins’. We are all the sisters of Promise.