Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel has five narrators: three youths born in London and two of their immigrant parents. It bristles with urban angst and sad/bitter memories of an older generation.
The story kicks off with Selvon, an amateur athlete who doesn’t live on the Stones Estate but his friends do and he likes to run there as part of his morning training routine. He thinks of a girl, Missy, he wants to have sex with but also of escaping from his neighbourhood. He sees streets cordoned off by the police, following the murder of an ex-soldier by a black person.
Selvon’s father, Nelson, immigrated to Britain from Montserrat. Now in ill-health, he recalls the prejudice that awaited him and the scorn of fellow immigrants who mocked his lack of militancy.
Yusof is a friend of Selvon’s and his father, who was the imman at his local mosque, has recently died. Hard-line Muslims are intent on taking control of the mosque and Yuof struggles to resist them.
Ardan, a friend of both Yusof and Selvon, is into grime music but too shy to develop his talent. His mother, Caroline, is a migrant from Belfast who was sent to London when young to escape the violence that her IRA family has become involved in.
With verve and linguistic flair, “In our mad and furious city” weaves a tale for our times around these five characters. Take the rap episode – told through Ardan’s voice – on the top deck of a bus which he and Selvon board: We walk down to the back where Selvon sees a boy from Estate. He’s surrounded by other breddas, hoodies up, cotching along the back seats getting rowdy’.
Ardan senses the mood; ‘Faces cowled, grinning, getting hype. They shuffling around their seats. A battle is popping off, ennet. Take my earbuds out to cop it. Should be good.’
The ‘battle’ is an impromptu rap competition with the music supplied by someone’s phone and ‘bars’ delivered by two of the boys in turn. Ardan enjoys the second one– ‘A proper build with a good, grimy flow. I like it and nod on’ – until “Eye-yo, myman is next. Selvon points at me”. Ardan is pushed into performing: “Don’t be a pussyo blood, battle the breddas”.
Ardan has no choice and off he goes, poking fun at the competition for false heroics:
And you dumb to my struggle so I’ll just list it
Road dons always jacking me, burka always buoying me.
Dickheads wanna battle me and my dad used to batter me.
So who the fuck are you to me?…
I do this because my rhymes are knives
My flows are veins and my lines are signs – to the future,
I freeze you’re face like Medusa…
Selvon is named after Samuel Selvon, the author of a novel – “The lonely Londoners” (a 1956 classic about the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants) – that his father read while struggling to adjust to his new life. Gunaratne’s novel is a kind of sequel and it’s a blistering read.
“In our mad and furious city” by Guy Gunaratne is published by Tinder Press.
(Photos provided by the publisher)