I initially picked up Annalena McAfee’s NIGHTSHADE because of the cover, but the front-cover puff quote from THE OBSERVER really grabbed me: “A glorious novel. … Full of twisted sexuality, art and power. … Brutal and unforgettable.” It’s a rather generic remark, yes, but I bought it because I wanted a ticket for that ride.

It did not disappoint, and the puff quote is entirely accurate. I’ll note in advance that, due to how the book is paced, this is a very difficult novel to summarize and I’d hate to give anything away.

Protagonist Eve Laing is a prickly, spiteful painter in her sixties who has had some success with her realistic portrayals of flowers in her works, notably in substituting flowers for the London Underground tube map. She’s brainstormed a new work, one focused on poisonous flowers, which is meant to be her magnum opus.

At first, NIGHTSHADE feels in the vein of Margaret Atwood’s CAT’S EYE (a personal favorite) in that it’s an older creative substantially reflecting on their artistic and personal life while navigating a city.

Then it takes a turn. Then another. And another.

It takes a while to unfurl but, if you have the patience for it, you will be rewarded.

SMALL AXE (2020)

(Prime) Obviously we’ll be hearing a lot about this series over the upcoming months, but a lot of ink has already been spilled as to whether Steve McQueen’s SMALL AXE is TV or film. You’d think that, since Krzysztof Kieslowski did something similar with THE DECALOGUE in the late 80s, critics would have an answer to that by now. Personally I don’t care. Call it a modern successor to the televised theater anthologies of old for all I care. Let him win a bunch of Emmys and Oscars!

It’s a singular achievement in this day and age — each and every segment of SMALL AXE would land on anyone’s ‘best of’ list this year — and to release five masterpieces in one year? It feels like McQueen challenged himself to direct the hell out of a wide range of genres, personally investing himself by showcasing London’s Black community he grew up in, daring himself not to fuck it up.

Visually sumptuous with scenes full of food preparation, simmering, consumption; aurally entrancing with music endlessly throbbing, knives and forks clattering on ceramic; exceptional performances that bolster meticulously crafted scripts — it’s fantastic cinema. Or TV. Or cinematic TV. Or just great art.

Yes, you can watch every film on its own — although I’d suggest going with the suggested viewing order — and you will find each and everyone to be exceptional, but watch them together, watch the timeline of events unfold, watch matters ebb and escalate, and the whole becomes a greater sum of its parts. It’s remarkable.

Oh, and when you’re done, check out the SMALL AXE online zine: