Searching For Clues: A Review of Shola von Reinhold’s LOTE
Author: Roz Milner
February 25, 2023
LOTE, the debut novel by Shola von Reinhold, is something of a ghost story, a trip through archives, abandoned apartments, and a rural artist’s retreat in search of a forgotten Black poet from the 1920s. It’s an interesting and frequently funny novel that touches on relevant themes.
The novel follows Mathilda Adamarola, a young Black woman devoting her life to her Transfixions, a series of people from the 1920s she’s obsessed with. They range from socialites (Stephen Tennant) to artists (Lola Montez, Roberte Horth) to historical figures. “I couldn’t remember where some of my really obscure Transfixions came from,” writes von Reinhold. “They appeared following obsessive, whirlwind nights.” Mathilda has a hyperfixation, spending her life infiltrating archives and museums to research them.
While volunteering at an archive, she comes across a picture of Hermia Druitt, a forgotten Black poet and socialite, and immediately finds a new Transfixion. Writes von Reinhold:
Beyond photographs taken for colonial documentation, I wasn’t sure
if I’d ever seen a photograph of a Black woman, or man, from this
era, with hair this texture, that hadn’t been ironed or lye-
straightened. Certainly, never in such a setting. An excruciation of
coil and kink, for it made me ache with jealousy and bliss.
Mathilda soon finds herself on a wild trip through England, taking her to decaying archives, glass-ceilinged restaurants, and ultimately to a rural artists colony in Dun. Here she gets mixed up with “thought artists,” investigates the history of a luxury cult, and drinks a lot of fancy champagne.
LOTE is a novel that defies easy categorization. It’s a dive into the history of Black culture in England and how history has been obfuscated, erased, and appropriated. It also touches on queer and trans themes, with characters who straddle the lines of gender and sexuality. It even has a post-modern bent, interpolating other texts and letters to flesh out its world while also subtly omitting essential parts of the narrative. Hermia’s past, for example, is presented in a highly redacted table, leaving readers guessing her backstory.
But LOTE is also very funny at times. From its relentless skewing of self-important artists and academics, the sly digs at the establishment, to the empty jargon and aesthetics of the Thought Artist’s patron saint Garreaux, von Reinhold digs her claws in and has a satire at least as wicked as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.
For example, when Mathilda has her first encounter with Thought Artists, she describes them as “bankers on their day off… but not quite this, they were too austere for that.” In their expensive shirts, working in spotless studios, and clutching bright yellow textbooks, these artists talk in academic jargon and hollow sentences without a clear meaning:
“If Nepotism is the sweet insolvency, then why not the Incest the brave and noble nouveau-bankruptcy?”
“The Dotage levels in this particular area are naturally of little to no use. We expect the large majority of your locus to come from the city proper.”
Von Reinhold does a great job of satirizing them. They take designer drugs so they can stay up for days, working on mysterious projects that nobody can ever see, and speak in hushed tones about their leader, a guy whose thought is so impenetrable, it might not mean anything at all. Anyone who’s rubbed shoulders with devotees of Lacan, Derrida, or Zizek will recognize these people.
At the same time, Mathilda chases after Druitt like a ghost: while there are tantalizing hints and clues, Druitt’s poetry and reputation have vanished. It’s alleged she might only have been a prank pulled by 1920s writers. In her single-minded quest, Mathilda reminds us not only that Black and Queer artists have been erased but of how and why the academy set about doing so.
Throughout the book, von Reinhold does a great job of not only drawing the reader into Mathilda’s Transfixions but of conveying the way she moves about the world, why she’s trying to bring Druitt to light, and the dissonance between her quest and their sterile world of the Residency. Von Reinhold walks a delicate tightrope: the way she cuts between Mathilda and the books she surrounds herself with could’ve come off as pretentious or hackneyed, but she pulls it off, showing herself as an exciting prose stylist.
Initially published in 2020 by UK-based publisher Jacaranda Books, LOTE took a while to make it to North America, finally getting published in the US by Duke University Press in 2022 (Canadians, meanwhile, can get it via Metonymy Press). LOTE is worth the wait. It’s a heady trip through forgotten corners, told in von Reinhold’s lush and atmospheric style, and one of the best debut novels of last year. Recommended.