What We Thought: It’s a story that drags you into a world all too readily prejudged and forces you to look at life another way. The character of John-John Wisdom is sympathetic, deep, dignified and endearing, even when he’s pounding another man to a pulp.
It’s hard and brutal and contains several graphic scenes of violence or cruelty, but these are not gratuitous. Shocking, yes, but crucial to both storyline and character. There are also tender moments, where we see the hope and love creeping through the cracks in both toughened facades.
The split narrative is an intelligent device which compounds one of the novel’s themes, that of the inescapability of the past. The second narrator, whom I won’t name for fear of spoilers, gradually reveals what happened in the past. There is a tragic fatalism in this for the reader, as we know how it ends up. Or think we do. Whereas John-John’s story is just beginning, and we’re willing him to sidestep all the traps.
The weaving of the two stories to the climax is perfectly done, and although horrifying, feels right and strangely satisfying. It explains a lot. The final image is one of optimism, albeit tinged with inescapable despair.
The author uses a rich vernacular for both the voices, which on the whole, works well. The accent and localised expressions take a while to get used to, but are not overdone.
Overall, this is not an easy read but it’s fascinating, well-constructed, intelligently written and absolutely worth the effort.
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh), Once Were Warriors (Alan Duff), Twelve Bar Blues (Patrick Neate), The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling).
Avoid if you don’t like: Use of dialect, violence, dissection of social prejudice.
Ideal accompaniments: Cider, ice-cream, Elvis Costello.
Genre: Literary fiction, coming-of-age.