Music for the Off-KeyBy Courttia Newland
A middle-aged man with a guilty taste for schoolgirls looks for a way to end his shame; a hotel receptionist begins a sexual adventure with shattering consequences; a young man is troubled by a persistent itch behind his shoulder-blades; a young African boy confronts his bullying class-mates in a surprising way; and a sculptor is asked to make a realistic life-size woman by a Japanese client. In these and the other stories in this collection, there is a delight in the dark, the grotesque, and the uncanny. In each of the stories, most of the characters are Black, and it both does and doesn't matter that this is so. As Courttia Newland's previous books have led us to expect, he is a meticulous, insightful observer of West London's Black communities, of their patterns of speech, fashions, their pleasures and the pressures of racism and exclusion they seek to escape. These are communities (and stories) in which crime, violence and drugs are part of the realities of life. But what is important here is not the sociology, but the form, in particular Courttia Newland's reinvigoration of the classic, popular short story form with its play with narrative twists and the unexpected. Drawing inspiration from everything from traditional horror movies to the contemporary sophistication of Japanese works in this genre, Newland brings together the literary and the popular in a uniquely Black British mix. In an afterword to these stories, Newland writes of his frustration with the narrow limits imposed by mainstream publishing expectations on Black British fiction, trapped between the immigrant 'Windrush' novel and the Yardie gangster novel with its American borrowings. "Music for the Off-Key" is distinctively British in its materials, black in a number of senses, and a thoroughly entertaining and sometimes shocking break-out from limiting expectations.