Author Jen Campbell reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins for TOAST Book Club.
The room was so yellow it could have been planted in good soil, bouquets of lavender and myrtle studded in vases on the mantel and the sill and all the tables. It had the feeling of sunlight trapped in it. Some men are rich enough to make their own weather, I thought.'
This beautiful but claustrophobic room is reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. These are Frannie Langton's thoughts upon arriving at her mistress's house in London. She has just been removed from Paradise' a place that was anything but: a plantation where the owner, Mr. Langton, experiments on slaves. Frannie is one of his experiments, a young black girl brought up on books so he could examine who she would become.
Novels are Frannie's sustenance. Like any child reading books, she feels as though she is escaping into those stories, but she soon learns there is no escaping the stories she reads. Punished for appearing idle, Mr. Langton forces her to eat the pages of her favourite book, Candide, and slowly its words become part of her. Throughout the whole novel, books are described as food: pages as white as apples,' one book cleaner than fresh-baked bread', a novel like a long, warm drink' but as Frannie's mistress remarks: women cannot survive on novels alone.'
Author Sara Collins uses books as markers throughout The Confessions of Frannie Langton to great effect. When talking about the books she loves, Frannie says holding one [is] like holding all the things that could happen in the world but just [haven't] happened yet.' This is a wink to the reader, for all the books Collins mentions are clues as to what is about to happen next. Frannie's favourite novel, Candide, is an attack on optimism and shares similarities with her own life. When Frannie discovers another copy of this book in London, she sews pages of it into her skirts and uses it to weaponise herself. Upon leaving Paradise, she tells her mistress she has just read Paradise Lost. Next, her mistress embarking on a love affair with Frannie reads Mathilde aloud. This is Mary Shelley's autobiographical novel written in the second person, about a character who confesses her sins before she dies. Frannie says that she does not like it at all, and it's no wonder: it's too close to the book she is about to write herself.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton opens long after these events, in a London prison. Frannie is on trial for the murder of her mistress and her mistress's husband. She cannot or perhaps would rather not remember that night. Anti-slavers visit her, saying they want to write her story for her. She refuses; she wants to write it herself. That's what this book is; it is her truth. They scoff, thinking the task is beyond her, saying if you choose to write it yourself, it will be necessary to season it. Your readers will need to understand. Show them why you had no choice.'
Frannie bristles. This demand would require her to write more than her confessions, it would require her to write her trauma. Do those reading her book deserve that vulnerability? Should she have to make herself relive the horrors of slavery in order to educate? As a writer, is that her job? So, Frannie leaves gaps throughout the book moments of emptiness that could be explained away by memory loss or drug use, but feel more like defiance: no, I will not spell everything out for you here.
In writing her book, Frannie sews parts of her life together to create a narrative. This tale is her Frankenstein's monster a sentence taken from this body of text, another from somewhere else. After eating Candide as a child, Frannie says that writing is a case of gobbling backwards. As if I spent my whole life putting those words in, and now I'm spitting them back out.'
Collins's debut novel is fascinating in this respect. A reinvention, a collage, a dissection of Victorian gothic fiction. But because this book is the deliberate child of those novels, the pacing often feels chaotic: so many elements stitched together and, whilst I can see why those decisions were made, it did mean the book itself did not always feel cohesive. It felt like an experiment. But that is, of course, the point. I'm very eager to read whatever she writes next.
Images by Elena Heatherwick.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (Penguin) is Sara Collins first novel, winning the Costa Book Awards First Novel Prize, 2019.