Toni Whitmont reviews The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon

Where to start with The Coffee Story?

Let’s get the story out of the way first. Theodore Everett is dying. An old man now riddled with cancer, he looks back at his life at the helm of Everett and Sons Coffee, which for a time, dominated world trade in this most addictive of commodities. Teddy has been married a couple of times but his heart was always Lucy’s, the girl who emerged from the Ethiopian forest at the age of fourteen carrying a Zippo lighter in one hand and a coffee bean in the other. It was the early 30s and Teddy, not yet a teen, was living on one of the many family plantations in what was then Abyssinia pre-the attempted Italian invasion, in a house which started to fall apart from the day it was built, ignored by his completely peculiar parents, in the thrall of the perpetually plotting Marxist foreman, a blind seer and his sexually adventurous wife, and his shadowy silent alter ego Kewibe Abi.

Teddy’s coffee story unfolds in the ramblings of a dying man, getting more and more elliptical as the drugs take hold. Peter Salmon’s characters are magnificent – Simon the Big Nose (Teddy’s grandfather), Ibrahim Salez the infinitely sleazy go-between in Alexandria who deals in everything fake and authentic from Pharaoic treasures to hashish, Susu the silent bean grinding servant who is perhaps as prized for his brewing skill as his silent acquiescence to the unwanted advances of his patron, Teddy’s unnamed first wife and her preposterous Cuban revolutionary lover Carlo (himself an offsider of Castro), his grandmother Adelaide of the Suitcase, his father’s body guard (the villain of the piece), Siobhan his palliative care nurse with whom he falls in love.

Just as crucial to his story are real figures from history, emerging as palpable characters even though they we never “meet” them. Salmon has a great grasp of the past but who would have thought of including King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba who, according to Ethiopian legend, were the first in the line of royalty extending all the way down to Haile Selassie, (known as His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God and whom Teddy meets on not one but two occasions), Gramsci, Lenin, Fidel Castro, President Batista of Cuba? And then there is the possible theft of the Ark of the Covenant some 3000 years earlier. And is it just me, or did Salmon name

Haile Selassie becomes emperor of Ethiopia 1930.

Haile Selassie at his 1930 coronation

Lucy after the three million year old Australopithicean skeleton discovered at Hadar in Ethiopia in the 1970s?

But it is his prose that is the real star of this completely engaging novel. It swoops and loops.  Salmon’s use of language and construction are both clever and well thought through. There is plenty to laugh out loud about in this book, but there is also plenty to be bedazzled by. Although I read it over two rainy days, I stopped often, re-reading particular passages aloud for the sheer pleasure of the tumble of words and ideas. As an aside, Salmon is also a tour de force of invective.

This is a novel of ideas. Big ideas. History and histrionics, sex and suicide, communism, capitalism, fascism, pan-Africanism, colonialism and no doubt a few more “isms” I have neglected to mention here. Oh, and Scientology. It is also a novel about the personal, about a young boy whose life was irrevocably scarred one day when four bullets found their mark. More than anything else it is most definitely a story about coffee.

There is not much of a buzz about The Coffee Story yet which is a shame. Salmon is an Australian writer (ex-bookseller) living in the UK and this is his debut novel. There is a rather odd and shabby clip of him, which says more about Sceptre Books’ marketing budget than it does about the book. The couple of reviews that I did find were very favourable, including this from the Man Booker site: It screams Booker – a novel led by a strong and idiosyncratic narrative voice. Very stream of consciousness to the point that sentences go unfinished, there’s plenty of repetition and meandering. The voice (a dying coffee magnate) is engaging.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMuNXBwrm9Y]

Coffee novels have always held a fascination for me, and this one is head and shoulders above David Liss’ admirable The Coffee Trader. Nonetheless, it is tempting to describe  Salmon’s first novel as The Coffee Trader meets  DBC Pierre’s Lights out in Wonderland but if I said that I would probably be giving it the kiss of death. Perhaps it is because I grew up on stories from Africa, including a six degree of separation episode with the aforementioned Lion of the Tribe of Judah himself, it was inevitable that I would take to this book. Put together with sizzling prose,  a wild ride through the peaks and troughs of twentieth century history, a very original concept and very nifty execution, I can’t recommend The Coffee Story highly enough.

Want a snippet?

My Coffee Story has nothing to do with either of my wives, Moira meanting “destiny” or the other one. It’s about Lucy and I’m sorry I brought them up, but I’m dying and it’s not true that your life flashes before your eyes: It breaks off in chunks, a wife here, a wife there, Africa bloody Africa, the sound of bullets hitting flesh, the Italians, the Americans, the Cubans, the first lump beneath a testicle, the broken coffee-table, the dead child, the cars driving off with your happiness in the back, Lucy Alfarez, Lucy Alfarez, Lucy Alfarez, the bloodstained shoes wiped by a handkerchief, the handcuffs, the dossiers. The terrible burden of hidden guilt, the terrible burden of guilt revealed, but always, thank Christ, the smell of coffee.

The Coffee Story is available to order here, for delivery after July 12.

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