Manny and the Baby by Varaidzo (Scribe)

Review by Emma Warren

Windrush has become central to the way this country explains itself. Which is all good and well; the ship’s arrival at Tilbury Docks in 1948 was an important moment in British history. However, it has become a symbolic Year Zero of Britishness as it relates to the Caribbean or the African diaspora. Author Varaidzo has achieved many things in her phenomenal debut novel, including a compelling piece of world-building that allows us to see beyond the smoking funnels and gangplank of the one iconic boat.

Manny and the Baby reorganises history through characters who are Black and British, or Black in Britain, across two timelines. One relates to the lives of two sisters and a talented trumpet player, out and about in the jazz clubs of Soho just before World War II. Photographers, musicians, writers and dancers describe their lives in glittering, lively circles. The second timeline takes place in Bath during the 2012 Olympics, with characters whose connection to the past will be unspooled through a box of C90 cassette tapes. One of these is an exceptional teenage athlete born and bred in the South West, the other a grieving twenty-something Londoner. Their differences and similarities are sucked into daily life and vibrantly onto the page.

The writing draws you in with the warmth of a crackly two bar heater. Varaidzo – previously Arts & Culture editor at gal-dem and essayist for Nikesh Shukla’s best-selling collection The Good Immigrant – is a careful, skilful writer who has pulled off a layered story with verve and style. This is especially evident when she writes about music, whether that’s listening to Sade tapes in a car driven by a music-loving intellectual father or in 1930s Soho, where jazz is a whole world, in which characters and readers alike are spun up and around. A lost London is restored through the author’s deep archival digging: I’ll walk Soho’s streets differently after Manny and the Baby (sidenote: Robert Hylton’s 2022 non-fiction Dancing Through Time offered a similar reappraisal, describing Black London dance clubs in Fleet Street in 1764).

In Bath, Itai is digging into the past, surrounded by aloe plants, weed smoke and blue bags from the corner shop which act as narrative punctuation. He’s learning about 1930’s London alongside the reader: “How had he never known about this whole past to London? About jazz bars and dancers, about creative hustlers trying to be something or someone the same way everyone he knew back home was still doing. Identical lives, paved on top of each other, running around the same streets and separated by nothing but eighty years of cyclical history.”

Timelines dance around each other, almost touching at times. There are puzzles to be solved. Misunderstandings are amplified by inexperience or fear and there’s a malign hum in the background, of the police, poised off-page. But mostly, there is care and connection: between sisters who need each other, or women who love women, or young men who can’t bring themselves to admit the depth of their relationship because maintaining a position of carefully modulated distance – staying at zero – seems safer than commitment. We meet teenagers tipping into the adult world, young ones dealing with that first whole-body experience of falling for someone who doesn’t even know you’re there, the magnet pull – or absence of – money and power, of whiteness and of the long haul of sorrow, all layered on top of each other.

A novel is time travel; a portal into other worlds. Varaidzo’s debut novel offers a beautifully clear window into lives and histories that would be otherwise hidden, just out of sight.

‘Manny and the Baby’ is published on Thursday 11 April by Scribe Publications.

Copies bought from the Heavenly Recordings Bandcamp store come with an author signed book plate. Pre-order yours now. Props to Jodi Hunt for dressing the book so well.

The paperback edition of ‘Dance Your Way Home: A Journey Through The Dancefloor’ by Emma Warren is out now. Signed copies in the shop.