LOTE by Shola von Reinhold review – a celebration of eccentricity

A forgotten black modernist poet is the spark for a debut novel that acts as a rallying cry against Eurocentrism

The narrator of Shola von Reinhold’s debut novel is obsessed with various eccentric literary socialites from the 1920s – figures such as Stephen Tennant, Nancy Cunard and Edith Sitwell. Like many a young wannabe, Mathilda Adamarola cultivates affectations in order to emulate her heroes. Ordering food in a restaurant, she selects at random from the menu “with theatrical languor”. “Consequently, I dined on oysters chips and Cointreau – a very strange combination, but not at all awful.” While on a work placement at a gallery, Mathilda – who is black, working-class and gay – comes across an old photograph of a forgotten black Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm, and becomes fixated. Mathilda applies for a place on a conceptual arts residency in a small European town because Drumm had once lived there, and is accepted after winging a telephone interview. Mirth ensues. 

Mathilda hates the residency: her penchant for all things gaudy and florid clashes with the institution’s minimalist sensibility. She dismisses her fellow residents as “a medley of the most woebegone drips I have ever encountered”, and befriends a local weirdo called Erskine-Lily, whose flamboyant attire identifies him as a kindred spirit. They bond over a shared interest in black history and wallow together in boozy, disaffected idleness. One particularly memorable scene depicts Erskine-Lily topping up his wine supply: rather than carry the crate up the stairs, he drags it behind him on a sleigh – a vision of effete dissipation worthy of Withnail & I

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