Friday, 3 October 2014

Feral Youth by Polly Courtney

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Feral Youth is the story of Alesha – a fifteen year old from Peckham in South London. At the start of the book, Alesha is living under the radar, dodging social services, gang violence and her alcoholic mother. But she has a roof over her head, a friend she owes everything to, a youth centre that provides an occasional refuge, and a ‘rep’ that provides some flimsy protection on the streets.

In the course of a few short weeks over the summer of 2011, even those are taken away. No wonder Alesha’s angry. Angry enough that when messages start crowding onto her phone, telling her riots are kicking off all over south London, she is ready to take revenge on the whole self-satisfied world she sees around her.

Only, it’s beginning to look as if the one person she can really trust isn’t from the streets at all. She’s Alesha’s eccentric former music teacher, Miss Merfield – and she’s trying to tell Alesha there’s another way out.

There is almost an unspoken rule of writing that you may write as a serial killer or a space pirate or Marie Antoinette – but you don’t bust through the barriers of age and class to write a piece of serious contemporary literature from a point of view totally outside your own experience. And Courtney is no street kid. But she has had both the courage to know that rules are there to be broken, and the integrity to see that it must done right. Before she wrote the book, she immersed herself with South London teenagers and those that worked with them, absorbing their speech and learning at first hand what life on the streets is like. The result is a voice that will haunt you.

Reading Feral Youth brought back all the anger I felt in those weeks following the 2011 riots. At the end of it, I was crying. Aching for the Aleshas of this world. There is no doubt that Alesha is at times her own worst enemy. There were points where I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and shake her for not saying aloud what is going through her head. But Alesha can’t tell anyone about what’s happening. Everything in her life has taught her to say nothing, to trust no one.

Like Celie from The Color Purple, Alesha is a barely literate teenager reaching out to you from a world most of us would rather pretend doesn’t exist. And so long as we go on pretending, it will go on existing – to the shame of us all.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: The Colour Purple, Noughts and Crosses

Avoid if you dislike: having your preconceptions of today's youth shaken to the core

Ideal Accompaniments: Debussy spliced with DJ Dice

Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Young Adult

Available from Amazon

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