The Blurb On The Back:
For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music, freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.
While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide: radicalism is sweeping his local mosque, and he’ll do anything to protect his troubled older brother, Irfan, from it.
As the voices of Nelson and Caroline echo with a previous generation’s experience of violence and extremism, the story spirals towards its devastating conclusion.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
18-year-olds Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf are friends who live in Neasdon, West London. Yusuf and Ardan live on the council estate – Yusuf with his mum and older brother Irfan (who has recently returned home after separating from his wife due to an unspecified scandal) and Ardan with his mum, Caroline. Seldon lives off the estate with his mum and dad, Nelson (who has suffered a stroke), but frequently runs through it as he trains for the Olympics.
The three boys went to school together and are friends but as they each prepare to step into adulthood, their friendship is beginning to fracture as they address their own concerns: Yusuf is still coming to terms with his father (the Imam of the local mosque) and the more radical agenda of the new Imam’s agenda, which sees him exercising control over Yusuf and Irfan through their cousins; Ardan wants to be a rapper but his shyness prevents him from trying out the rhymes he writes down in public while Seldon is preparing to go to Brunel University and train for the Olympics while pursuing a relationship with Missy, a girl from the estate who’s active in the music industry.
When a British soldier is brutally murdered on the estate, it brings protests and riots to the local streets, pitching the community against itself and changing the lives of the three friends forever …
Guy Gunaratne’s stylish debut literary novel about life and race on a working class estate (long listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize) authentically conveys the language of the people who live there and the pressures of fundamentalism and those who use it for their own ends but the story is thin and driven by coincidence, the historical sections are heavy-handed and the friendship between the three boys is superficial at best.
I think that part of my problem with this book is that Gunaratne splits the story between too many points of view – in addition to each of the three boys he also throws in Nelson (who is unable to communicate with his son thanks to a stroke but whose memories of arriving in West London as an immigrant as part of the Windrush migration are intended to throw up a parallel with the racism experienced within the modern day estate) and Caroline (an alcoholic single-mother from Northern Ireland who was sent to London by her IRA-supporting family and whose experiences in the 1960s and 1970s is, again, intended to form parallel with the modern day sectarianism of the estate as the mosque’s new imam attempts to split Muslims from the rest of the community). To be honest, although these sections aren’t badly written (Nelson’s experiences in particular are vivid as he falls in with a militant group as a result of the prejudice he suffers) they are incredibly heavy-handed as Gunaratne uses them to anvil in his message that prejudice and racism is widespread and historical.
The effect of all these perspectives also dilutes the effect of the main thrust of the story here, i.e. how white nationalists have hijacked the murder of a soldier to protest against Muslims and how extremist Muslims equally use their grievance at being subject to racism to try and force more moderate Muslim voices under their control. Gunaratne doesn’t explore the circumstances of the murder or the responsibility for it, it’s purely there as a jumping off point for the subsequent – predictable – events and as such I felt that he missed a chance to show how tensions had been simmering and could be exploited.
My other issue though is that I simply didn’t believe in the friendship between the three central characters, in part because Gunaratne keeps them separate for so much of the book and the sections where they’re together are marked by a lack of any real conversation or attempt by the boys to connect with each other on anything other than a superficial level. This may well be Gunaratne’s point (i.e. that the boys formed a friendship at school based on necessity rather than general interest in each other) but it does undermine the idea of there being some kind of bond there that’s undermined by the forces at work on the estate.
More believable was Yusuf’s concern for his older brother Irfan, who he can tell is becoming more untethered from his life and who fears the consequences. The scenes where he attempts to reconnect with his brother as he remembers their relationship with their moderate father are well done and strike an interesting contrast with their encounter with the new Imam and the way they are being controlled and dominated by their bullying cousins.
The plot itself is thin and a little predictable and I the twist at the end did make me roll my eyes a little given that it’s been signalled so heavily in advance. This is a shame because I think that Gunaratne has a great narrative voice – the dialogue between the characters feels authentic and their goals, aspirations and challenges are neatly shown.
Ultimately, although this book didn’t quite work for me, there’s enough here for me to be interested in seeing what Gunaratne writes next.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.