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  • Articles by Sonali

    Book review: 'In Our Mad and Furious City' by Guy Gunaratne


    Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel ‘In Our Mad and Furious City’ was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker prize but didn’t make it to the shortlist. Nevertheless it has generated a lot of buzz. It's a perceptive look at young manhood today, brimming with heart and hormones. 2015 Booker winner Marlon James says the novel is “so of this moment that you don’t even realise you’ve waited your whole life for it.” 

    The novel takes its starting point from a real event, the killing of an English soldier in 2013 by a local Muslim boy (Gunaratne took four years to write the book). The disquiet stemming from this event divides the Stones Council Estate community in Neasden where the novel is set, and leads to rioting and civil unrest in the 48 hours following.

    Gunaratne takes a dystopian view of Neasden and London: London is a city full of dread and hate described as the Fury, ‘fury was like a fever in the air’. The tone is bleak and heavy. At times it reads like epic Shakespearian tragedy.

    The novel’s real focus and energy lies in the depiction of its three central teenage characters, Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf (Yoos) doing normal, everyday stuff against this grim back drop : playing football, listening to Grime music, sitting on the top deck of the bus, at the chicken shop or the gym. Ardan is an aspiring but shy grime artist, writing lyrics, mimicing his heroes Skepta and Wiley. He extols the virtues of Grime over American hip hop. ‘Why would any man keep listening to them with their foreign chemistries after that? Nobody from ends been to Queensbridge, get me?’

    Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf each tell their story in alternating chapters written using London Street dialect, reflecting the language of Grime music. This doesn’t pose a problem in terms of the novel’s readability although perhaps Gunaratne might have included a short dictionary translating all the slang words: ennet, fam, nuttan etc. There is a musicality and rhythm to his writing here. The chapters get shorter and more choppy towards the end. The pace builds up. His writing often reads like performance poetry, especially as the book progresses.

    Gunaratne, who has Sri Lankan heritage, grew up in Neasden himself. He writes about London with conviction and his vivid, fleeting vignettes of urban life are one of the book’s strengths. We see this when budding athlete Selvon (the most self-assured of the three boys) takes an early morning run through Neasden and the Stones Estate past  ‘carrots and lemons and cabbages in blue crates. Shopkeepers putting out their plastic pap.'

    Gunaratne adds two more voices to the mix, Caroline and Nelson. Both Caroline and Nelson are from the previous generation to the boys, but they do have common ground with them in terms of their immigrant heritage.  ‘For those of us who had elsewhere in our blood, some foreign origin, we had richer colours and ancient callings to hear.’

    Nelson was part of the Windrush generation and moved to London from Montserrat. His character does sometimes feel contrived in the way he uses West Indian vernacular, but it is illuminating to hear his experiences in the hostile environment of the 1960s when he was subject to racism. Caroline’s story, relating her family’s involvement in the troubles in Northern Ireland, is the one that jars the most. Gunaratne doesn’t seem to be able to write realistic female characters. Also his depiction of the Northern Irish experience feels inauthentic and tacked on.

    He is adept at bringing to life Selvon, Yusuf and Ardan though, with respect to what motivates them as young men, and how they relate to each other. The boys act like brothers, looking out for each other although they are never overly demonstrative, ‘Close without touch’. Ardan is concerned about Yusuf when his Dad is involved in a fatal car crash. Ardan suggests that he and Yusuf catch a bus down to the Trocadero to spend a day at the arcades. ‘I (Yusuf) never spoke to Ardan about my dad, my grief, my brother. Instead I just listened, smiling along to stories, allowing him to be there...’.

    The novel is far from perfect. The ending has a sense of heightened drama and tension with a series of short chapters (narrated by each character) converging on a new tragedy. The most important storyline about Yusuf and his troubled brother Irfan nearly gets drowned out in the confusion. But Gunaratne’s characterization of the three boys is bold and skilful and his observances of contemporary London ring clear and true.

     


     

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