Ownership and Theft

Shola von Reinhold, LOTE

Jacaranda Books, 328pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781913090111

reviewed by Leon Craig

Mathilda has been escaping for a long time. Slipping between aliases, from home to home, away from patronising friends she resents but depends on for favours, she is a daring chancer and a mistress of reinvention. She has worked out early and decisively that ‘miserly as they are, rich people will happily prop up their own kind for years. If they, however, discover they are suspending someone not of their own kind, unwittingly dangling them by a thread, they will start to feel charitable, which is one of their most violent and short-lived state. . .’ Rather than becoming a precarious charity case, she chooses to present herself as a well-heeled eccentric, to whom favours can be freely given.

Working as one of two Black unpaid volunteers in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda seeks ‘access to, glimpses of, Arcadia: The Grand Ahistorical Mythical Paradise which is the ultimate project of all Arcadian Personality Types who crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past much like their more illustrious cousins, Utopians, do with the future’. She happens upon a donated set of photographs of the Bright Young Things, the scandalous 1930s aristocratic set immortalised by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies. And right there, between two white aristocrats at a party at Garsington Manor, she spots an arrestingly beautiful Black woman with natural hair, dressed as a warrior angel, by whom she is immediately fascinated. Mathilda, prone to what she calls Transfixions with certain historical figures, is overcome with curiosity and slips the photo into her pocket. LOTE is a provocative, playful novel about ownership and theft, both literal and systematic — who is the rightful inheritor of an artistic legacy: the person who stamped their name on it first, never to look at it again, or the one it speaks to most urgently? Who is the real thief: the person who bends the rules to get what she needs or the person who upholds the rules designed to shut others out?

Mathilda’s boss labels her a ‘necrophile’ for her unremunerative, obsessive interest in the past, but humours her enough to make an impromptu trip to the house of the donor to enquire about the photographs’ provenance — a visit which unsettles the donor so much they are both fired from the archives. Mathilda is at the end of her tether: her latest housesitting gig has come abruptly to an end, her old friends are catching up with her and she hasn’t enough money to buy food. But her search for answers about the mysterious woman leads her to apply on a whim to the Dun Residency, a programme based in a Mitteleuropean town that may be connected to Hermia Druitt, the woman in the photo. Despite knowing nothing about Garreaux, the tedious auto-annihilating theorist around whose work the Residency is based, she blags her way onto the course and into receiving the stipend she so desperately needs.

Engrossed by her quest for knowledge about Hermia, the author of a lost Modernist masterpiece entitled The Fainting Youth, Mathilda ignores the ascetic, white and hostile Garreauxvians as much as she can without being thrown off the residency. But two of their number, Griselda and Hector are very interested in her, believing her professed ignorance of Garreaux to be a meta-theoretical ploy to garner critical favour for her final project. Griselda and Mathilda, despite their considerable differences in outlook, team up with fabulous local aesthete Erskine-Lily to uncover the secret of Hermia’s disappearance from the historical record. What they find is baroque and almost unimaginably bizarre: Hermia was a member of a reconstructionist secret society named LOTE (short for Lotophagi or Lotus eaters) and engaged in a collective effort to summon one of the forgotten tenth order of angels, the Luxuries. Dark-skinned, benevolent beings with iridescent wings, the Luxuries can be called to the earthly plain to preside over revels and commune with human Luxurites in a state of aesthetic bliss. Very few depictions of them remain extant, most having disappeared – or perhaps having been deliberately destroyed. But as the four seekers approach the truth about Hermia and LOTE, it becomes apparent that Garreaux himself is implicated in the suppression of her life and work. Like the piece of grit that makes the pearl possible, Hermia has been subsumed into the Foundation and almost completely obscured by its uniform whiteness. In a potent metaphor for the erasure of the Black lives and Black labour that have gone into the creation of the contemporary European academy, her room is sealed within the Foundation library and her work bound in a plain white cover and passed off as the early work of Garreaux’s devotees.

Recounted in beautiful, capricious prose, LOTE combines many appealing elements: archival mystery, biting satire, politically urgent counter-narrative and surreal caper. The vial of steeped lotus root which comprises a key step in the ritual and appears on the cover is indeed the perfect emblem, for reasons that only become clear some way into the novel. Von Reinhold’s reworking of alchemical symbolism is particularly well done, creating an atmosphere of mystic possibility while also inverting the racist colour imaginary of traditional alchemical theory:

‘One of the four fundamental colour stages of alchemy was nigredo, blackness, sometimes depicted more favourably as primordial and mystic, but more often depicted allegorically as something foul and putrefied. Eventually the solution transcends to a pure white, represented by a fiery white queen. But the final transcendent stage of Hermia’s tincture was not white but simultaneously iridescent and black.’

The image of the hermetic androgyne is repurposed as a symbol of Erskine-Lily’s struggle for selfhood and increasing dissatisfaction with binary gender: ‘in all the terms, in all the identities, there was nothing “to correspond”. Nothing that fulfilled a sense of it like the Alchemical Angel poster did. There wasn’t a name for it. Not now anyway. There had been a name for it in the past. Maybe there would be one in the future.’ The gains of Mathilda and Erskine-Lily’s alchemical quest are not so much literal wealth as friendship, selfhood and satisfaction in the likelihood of rescuing Hermia from the archives in which she has been entombed.

Von Reinhold is especially gifted at recreating mental-physical sensations of the sort anyone who spends a lot of time alone reading, or has intense and all-consuming cultural obsessions, will recognise ‘humming beneath the high fine rush — probably not dissimilar to holy rapture — was an almost violent familiarity. The feeling of not only recognising, but of having been recognised.’ Mathilda’s inner world of Escapes and Transfixions is lovingly rendered, with an innately camp dignity to her eccentric behaviour — she is both a pleasure-seeker and in deadly earnest. Her barbed criticisms of the deliberate, perverse ugliness of her rich friends’ homes and their unwillingness to give help to anyone not disguised as one of them find their mark, but her focus is not so much about persuading them to change as it is on getting her material, intellectual and aesthetic needs met. As such, the book is simultaneously very attuned to the politics undergirding Hermia, Erskine-Lily and Mathilda’s lives but also sets its sights above them. Its form and style, an irreverent quest narrative recounted with unabashedly ornate descriptions and barbed asides, is thus perfectly allied to its argument.

I did find myself wishing for a little less to-ing and fro-ing in the latter stages of the quest, and more details about the main characters’ relationships with one another. There are hints at an erotic tension between Mathilda and Griselda but this never builds to anything: in one rapture ‘Mathilda saw a rakish figure at the table where Griselda had been. A Romantic from Arcadia had finally come to join Erskine-Lily and her at last. The one who she knew had been loitering there all along’, but this Romantic side to Griselda continues to flicker in and out of focus. Hermia appears twice in short passages describing her travels, but as these aren’t diary entries, it is curious why we aren’t treated to more sections from her perspective. However, if the sole complaint one has about a novel is that there could be more of it, it’s safe to say that novel is vastly more enjoyable and insightful than many.

Part of what makes LOTE so revolutionary is its full-throated insistence that joy is valuable and worthy of strenuous pursuit, and Black, queer joy in particular. All the deftly-evoked archival melancholy and panic-inducing calculations over where the money is going to come from create a stark contrast to Mathilda and Erskine-Lily lolling about in hoop skirts on a bed, drinking ‘orion’ and plotting the arrival of an angel in their own image. They know they deserve one, even as the world insists otherwise. The novel has a striking similarity with Cheryl Dunye’s classic film The Watermelon Woman, a mockumentary in which Cheryl plays a version of herself researching the life of an early Black film star, best known for playing an obedient Mammy role, weeping for her white mistress’s grief. What Cheryl finds is that Fae Richards was actually a free spirit who sang on stage, left Hollywood to act in all-Black films and loved other women. Cheryl is chasing a kind of assurance of joy, that someone like her who came before could carve out a romantically and artistically fulfilling life against all the odds. Mathilda’s pursuit of Hermia is not so much necrophilia as necromancy, she isn’t seeking to profane anything so much as she is calling up the dead for reassurance and spectral solidarity.

The end of Dunye’s film is accompanied by the legend: ‘Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction.’ What Shola von Reinhold amply demonstrates with LOTE is how rich and surprising an invented past might be, and with how much radicalism and pleasure it can illuminate the present day.

Leon Craig 's writing has appeared in The London Magazine, 3:AM Magazine and the TLS among others. Her short story collection, Parallel Hells, is forthcoming from Sceptre Books in 2022, and she is now working on her debut novel.