Book Review

Golden Apple of the Sun by Teju Cole

strongest lockdown lit i've (yet) to encounter

cw: historic enslavement

Golden Apple of the Sun is the latest book from Teju Cole, author of the brilliant (yet overshadowed by its underforeshadowed twist ending) Open City and other less flawed works.

As those of you who have read any of Cole’s nonfiction (or author bio) will know, Cole is a US-based Nigerian writer and photographer with a potent, powerful and wide-ranging intellectual engagement with literature, culture and visual art. This latest work is a collection of photography taken during the autumn of 2020, as well as a nonfiction essay.

This is a pandemic text in the very purest form: totally conceived, composed and published during the 2020 to 2021 cycle of COVID-related lockdowns on lockdowns, mass death, mass denial of death etc. etc. etc.

Golden Apple of the Sun is published by MACK, an art press rather than a literary press, and the smaller size of this publisher (compared to PRH) allowed Cole’s book to be produced with this tight turnaround while still ensuring that it is a beautiful, stimulating, and timely object.

The book contains a series of photographs of Cole’s kitchen, looking at the objects he used to cook, serve and contain food and beverage during the pandemic period when – like most of us – Cole spent far more time at home than he ever had before as an adult.

Interspersed between these photographs are super high resolution reproductions of a 1780ish handwritten Bostonian cookbook, full of egg-heavy recipes for cakes, pies, jellies and vague quasi medicinal substances.

After 100 or so pages of photography and historical handwriting (several different hands, though all are anonymous (Cole is unable to confirm who wrote these recipes or exactly when they were written; given the when and the where of the texts, this means it is impossible to know if these texts were written by white homeowners or Black enslaved people) there is then a 30 page essay written by Cole (somewhat needlessly without paragraph breaks), which is an intimate and super interesting discursive piece of writing on the madeleine-like nostalgia kicks he ends up journeying on while not leaving the house.

Cole addresses multiple and inconsistent second person presumed readers: at times it is a sibling, at times a parent, at times probably a lover or a close friend, but at no point does this inconsistency feel contrived or confusing.

It just very much feels like the thoughts and meanderings of someone who is both freed and trapped by an absence of structured time and place constraints, as happened during the weightiest parts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a physical object, the book is fucking gorgeous, with incredibly beautiful printing and paper, and in terms of the deep insight into the thoughts and experiences of lockdown, it is one of the more coherent pieces of pandemic writing than I’ve encountered so far.

Cole talks about civil war, both in the US many years ago and in his native Nigeria when he was a child, retelling an anecdote about walking home from high school across the city after gunfights had kicked off and arriving home to his parents who had prepared themselves for him to never get there (this happened in the early ’90s, before mass uptake of mobile phones).

Cole discusses the meanings, ingredients and messaging behind the 18th century menus, as well as the reliance on slavery-based industries and import networks to facilitate the items presumed to be at hand.

Spices, citrus fruits and sugar are all discussed in detail, as too are Dutch still lives and the entrenched racism of the “Dutch Golden Age”.

Golden Apple of the Sun is intellectually nuanced and less emotionally detached than Cole sometimes has a tendency to be, which I loved!

This is an excellent exploration of the the the confusion and unfamiliarity of those pandemic years (though, of course, on a technical level (at time of writing this blog (mid October 2022)) the World Health Organisation still deems us to be within a pandemic, but the ways in which the pandemic affected our day-to-day lives is over (except for the immunocompromised and the grieving and the sufferers of long COVID)), but in no way does this writing feel like a throwback to an unknowable way of feeling.

Golden Apple of the Sun may be set two years ago and may be describing a situation that (hopefully!) won’t recur [for a long time], but it doesn’t feel like a now irrelevant text. This is a super pertinent, universalised and engaging look at [a very middle class experience of] that unprecedented time in the contemporary era. Cole’s essay – even detached from the photography – will likely persist as a significant pandemic document, a la Samuel Pepys.

This is a really beautiful book, and although none of the 18th century recipes sound remotely edible, even these are entertaining to read as a socio-cultural reminder of the ways in which some things change and some things stay the same.

If you’re a fan of Cole, this is definitely up there with his best writing, and thankfully is absent of the self-sabotaging plot elements of the so-close-to-brilliant Open City.

Order direct from the publisher via this link. I recommend you do it!

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