Roberts, N’Gadie. Grave Delights. NGadie Roberts, 2021. RRP: $27.95, 136pp, ISBN: 9781922629890.
Grave Delights is a short anthology of poetry and fiction, the first publication by N’Gadie Roberts, a Sierra-Leonean-Australian author and audiologist. The book consists of three volumes: ‘Midnight Storytellers’, ‘Grave Delights’ and ‘A Field of Thorns’, with entries ranging from short stories to captivating micro-poems. The form of the book is one of its intrigues, as Roberts moves seamlessly across modes—even within single works. And, as the title may suggest, this book is infused with death and decay. To me, Grave Delights feels like a Gothic testament to the hidden darknesses of the world we inhabit.
The first volume emulates Roberts’ experiences as a child listening to bedtime stories and cautionary tales. One of my favourite works was ‘My Grandmother’, a short, enticing mystery:
with a shipwreck, in the hours preceding dawn
three girls, one song,
one sailor, one storm. (24)
I adored the ageless nature of this piece; Roberts uses a rhythmic tone to capture the longevity of stories and parables retold for generations. Like many of these handed-down tales, Roberts’ work is cautionary: her writing infers that we can never quite trust the world or the people around us. The uncertainty creeps in slowly, as all her grandmother’s stories begin to make a new, horrible sense when seen through adult eyes.
This uncanny shift is present all throughout the first volume, making Roberts’ writing devilishly playful. Her poems open like fairy tales, luring the reader in with lush descriptions, before rapidly switching to horror. And instead of being safely sweetened, Roberts spices them up with classic Gothic tropes of isolation, madness and dark desires.
I loved the recurring focus on tricks and traps in her poetry, such as in ‘Daughters of the Moon’ where ‘the ivory sand begins to blush / and order is restored’ (11) as a deserted beach is appeased with a human sacrifice. Or in ‘Jewels for the Hunter’, where the unnamed narrator describes their strange appetites and ‘buried their bones / deep in the womb / of an evergreen forest’ (9). As each poem opens with a new attempt to beguile or mislead, it definitely feels like Roberts is trying to warn us that the world is a dangerous place:
into the forest
I’m wearing a smile you sightseers trust (‘The Smile of a Stranger’ 14)
In the second, titular volume, Roberts’ fairy tale strangers grow up into real-life horrors as she begins to explore the dangerous side of love. Murdered spouses, bloodthirsty parents, catastrophic dates and unsettling potential boyfriends run rampant in what feels like a continuous soap opera of twisted Gothic romance. However, as fun as it is to read, her subject matter takes on an even darker and more realistic tone than the first volume, with systemic racism, assault, manipulation and misogyny all conveyed with a narrative voice of suppressed fury. Here, Roberts’ poetic language is clipped, brusque and brutal, especially in my personal highlight ‘Seedless Grapes’:
I have memories of me
to blood on the bed.
You’d forced yourself onto me
so I castrated you instead. (47)
The POV might imitate your standard Black Widow ‘Dangerous Woman’, but Roberts uses this concept to speak to the perils of both dating and love. ‘Seedless Grapes’ captures the lengths that women are forced to go to protect themselves, as well as the terrifying instances of fear being misinterpreted as frigidity. Across ‘Grave Delights’, Roberts uses pithy statements to dig into rape culture and other societal injustices, and her ‘take-no-prisoners’ tone is delightfully cathartic to read.
But what I loved most is that she manages this graveness alongside her tongue-in-cheek comedy. The trickery continues, her poems shocking the reader with such morbid twists and sordid reframings that it even feels a little campy, like a ’60s horror comic dripping in exclamation marks. As Roberts’ subject matter turns more adult, I can’t help but chuckle at her complete abandon in each moment of pitch-black humour, in each final stinging line. Sometimes, the only thing we can do is laugh in the face of horror:
Let him go.
You’ll find someone who doesn’t trivialise
all the trauma you’ve gone through.
For the first time in years,
I obeyed that voice inside my heart.
I let go
and he fell
down. (‘Tranquillity’ 62)
Like I said, it’s nothing if not cathartic.
All throughout Grave Delights, Roberts peppers tiny microcosms of language between her longer poems, capturing everything from the pain of a bad memory to the fear of a loud fart in a quiet space:
when you’re sitting amidst
a silent crowd
and you know the fart
is going to be loud. (‘Cosmic Gas’ 49)
Alongside these fleeting little gems, Roberts also uses brevity in her final volume, ‘A Field of Thorns.’ Here, she retains a few chilling moments of horror, but infuses them with a deep sense of loss and pathos.
While Roberts’ earlier fragmentary style replicates a rush of adrenaline, a quick stabbing gasp of fear or fury or visceral pain, this volume attempts to capture transient, easily missable moments: we walk with her through winter mornings, sunlit streets, lazy days. These short works fluctuate from joyous to regretful, as Roberts’ language shows a person that needs to find meaning in the blows that sadness has struck. The longest entry, ‘Whistling in a Quiet Place’, is a grieving testament to letting go of a loved one. It is another fantastic example of Roberts deliberately misleading the reader: the poem disguises a second, completely different story which I am loath to reveal, but this bait-and-switch is absolutely my highlight of the book:
Her sound was a mix between a scream
from a hollow dream
or harps in a silver stream.
Her pitch was distorted
volume slightly contorted
but I knew it was her. (112)
Grave Delights opens with a childhood hunger for adventure—as well as with the realisation that not all stories make sense. It then takes up the tempests of romance, and tells love’s bright agonies in horror vignettes, before ending on a calmer reflection of life. In this sense, the book feels like a journey. And on that journey, Roberts’ language takes in and appreciates what is gone, broken, sad and beautiful.
Rachel Denham-White is an emerging writer living in Boorloo/Perth. She has completed an Honours in Literary Studies and is a past intern for Westerly Magazine. She currently writes for Limina Journal.