Sterling Karat Gold – Isabel Waidner – 2021 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

Warning: This review contains descriptions of bullfighting which may upset some readers.

Traditional bullfighting is understandably on the wane, with the blood sport highlighting animal cruelty as well as its ties to nationalistic behaviours. A bull fight is choreographed into three distinct phases, initially a matador observes the reaction of the bull by the waving of a banderilleros’ “capote” (cloak), two picadors, mounted on heavily padded and blindfolded horses then repeatedly drive a “vara” (lance) into the muscles of the bull’s neck, the second phase sees the matador planting barbed sticks “banderillas” (little flags) into the bull’s shoulders, this weakens the neck and shoulder muscles, finally the matador enters the ring alone, provokes the bull finally manouvering it so it can thrust the “estocada” (sword) between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart, resulting in the bull’s death.

A barbaric, tortuous process. It does not matter if the bull survives the process, it will still be taken out the back and be slaughtered.

As far as bullfighting goes, a draw isn’t a thing apparently. A bullfight isn’t a contest, it’s a ritualized tragedy. The outcome is never in question: the bull always dies. If, rarely, a matador fails to place the killing thrust, the bull is led out and killed in the back. So no, no draw.

Isabel Waidner is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing/Performance at Queen Mary University of London their profile reading in part:

I am a writer based in London, with a specialism in interdisciplinary and innovative forms of creative writing at the intersection with queer and trans theory.

Isabel Waidner has been twice shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for their two novels, ‘Gaudy Bauble’ and ‘We are Made of Diamond Stuff’ (both published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe) and their latest novel, ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ (Peninsula Press) has recently made the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

‘Sterling Karat Gold’ is narrated in the first person by Sterling, who appears in the streets of Camden Town “in a white football shirt wrapped my waist like a skirt. Red velvet bullfighter jacket on, and black montera, traditional bullfighter hat. Yellow football socks, black leather loafers.” As the references at the end of the book advise this is based on Ibrahim Kamara’s bullfighter-footballer fusion outfit, from Central Saint Martins (2016)

Sterling then becomes involved in an attack, a bullfight, where they are assailed by picadors and matadors, having lances pierced into their neck, banderilleros are run into their shoulders (with the colours of the St George Cross), once exhausted the matador has raised the sword above their head when a person in “trackie bottoms and a jumper” distracts the matador by showing Sterling a red card.

Chief bully on horseback, playing at being a picador like everyone else.
Picador is one of a pair of horsemen in a traditional bullfight who jabs the bull with a lance, and it is also a British publishing house.

This is a vivid and wonderful allegorical opening. The plight of humans on the fringes, constantly jabbed, assailed, bullied with no recourse, knowing that “the outcome is never in question”. The matadors a metaphor for “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”

Our novel then follows the life predicaments of Sterling, their friend Chachki, the mysterious saviour in the “trackie bottoms and a jumper” Rodney and a cast of persecutors, through time travel, spaceship rides, performance pieces, and life histories. Using cultural icons (all referenced at the end of the novel) such as the album cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Surf’s Up’

and the artwork ‘The End of the Trail’ by Robert H. Colescott (1976) this is multi layered work delving deeply into ingrained “class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”

Chapter 4, “My father’s lover was never the stepdad I wanted him to be”, looks at the footballer Justin Fashanu, the first football player in England’s topflight to come out, his career then falling apart before he took his own life in 1988, aged 37.

This is an important novel, in an era of books that look at marginalization and dissent, this is one that stands out, head and shoulders above the pack. A work of reclamation, as the black horseman in Colescott’s painting says, “It’s called reclamation, and yes, this is a threat”.

In the character’s time travelling adventures they visit Iraq, where the subject of dissent comes up:

Western regimes topple dissenters much close to home, too, despite cultivating the idea that they don’t.

Throughout you need to be alert to the subtle, and not so subtle, references to the people on the margins who are constantly under attack. Sterling can’t even get a job in a gay sauna as a cleaner, the lowest job possible, the reason? “Man boobs”.

Using images for such extremes as Ibrahim Kamara’s bullfighter outfit and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, or books such as Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ and Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘Death in the Afternoon’ your reading is peppered with historical artefacts, all creating a vivid chaotic picture. There’s even an interesting stream of artworks and frescoes that have the appearance of spacecraft, I look these up on the web and suddenly I’m going down a rabbit hole of extraterrestrial images in early religious art!

Using the idea of a traditional and nationalistic practice, the bullfight, as a central theme, allows for numerous parallels, metaphors and allegories to be made. Late in the novel there’s the sentence, “They use tradition and fanfare to remove the need for accountability and even discretion.” Read that sentence again….

They use tradition and fanfare to remove the need for accountability and even discretion.

Sound like any of those right-wing media pundit’s, or politicians?

As Isabel Waidner says:

this is why they stage executions as bullfights in the first place.

A very important novel, entertaining, bat shit crazy at times, but always with its feet firmly placed on the ground, a novel of dissent, activism and a plea for the slow torture to stop.

My copy of this novel was reveived as part of the monthly books from small independent publishers sent as part of my Republic of Consciousness Prize subscription. If you want to join in the fun and receive independent books visit their “Book of the Month” page.

One thought on “Sterling Karat Gold – Isabel Waidner – 2021 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

  1. Pingback: Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist 2021 | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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