The immigrant experience in a North London estate

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

Gunaratne’s novel was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, but sadly didn’t make the shortlist. It has now been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize – an award that celebrates creatively daring fiction. Daring it is, for never have I read a book where the dialogue so perfectly captures the voices of its five protagonists.

Three young men, second generation immigrants from different ethnic backgrounds, Selvon, Ardan and Yusef are friends, hanging out to play football and listen to grime on the North London estate where they live. They’ll be moving on soon, school just about done, each hoping to take a different path that will take them away from the area. The boys’ experiences contrast with those of two first generation immigrants, Caroline a refugee from the Troubles in Belfast and Nelson from the Windrush generation. Long-suffering both, they’ve seen it all before and know to be scared.

This gritty story full of mounting tension is told over an intense 48 hours. The five take turns to drive the narrative and the older characters’ stories flash back to their youth, when Caroline was leaving Belfast and Nelson setting sail from Monserrat for London.

As it begins, the killing of a British soldier nearby has sparked riots across the city. Nowhere is now safe, particularly on the estate – there’s going to be a march going past between the estate and the mosque, and everything could kick off.

Selvon has his running and boxing, Ardan writes his lyrics on the rooftop. Selvon chases after Missy and Ardan wishes he had Selvon’s confidence with girls.

– So you gone bang that Missy girl then? Or you bang her already or what? (…)
– Nah, ain’t banged her yet, I say, but I’m looking to.
– Is it? Thought you already banged her. That Missy girl is a piece.
Myman’s oblivious-tho. Man don’t know about the moves it takes to bang a yati like Missy. He don’t know that level of finesse, like. Obviously, he don’t. It’s like I’m still in year nine with this bredda, chatting breeze on park bench or suttan. I nod anyway, like yeah.

For Yusef, however things are more difficult. His late father had been the Imam at Mosque, a moderate man and inspiration to Yusef, but the new imam is not the same. Mosque is becoming radicalised and that scares Yusef, particularly after his older brother’s revelations, and the way the imam’s henchmen, the ‘Muhajiroun breddas… checking up on us.’

I prayed though. Prayed for my abba to be alive. For his hands to come lift us away from Irfan’s wreckage. Abba would have dealt with it the only way he knew how, ennet, switch from being just our father to also being imam. He’d have us recite scripture. Find our way together with prayer under Mosque. But he had been dead a year and three months now. (…) Abba would have known what to do with Irfan.

By the time each of the five has introduced themselves, we’re hooked. Gunaratne captures the young voices perfectly, with all their vernacular and street slang (I learned a lot!). The relationship between the three young men is touching, empathetic. Selvon is the protector, facing up to the Muhajiroun bullies who pick on Ardan and would rather Yoos didn’t play football with them. Ardan is the dreamer, the talented wordsmith who is hoping to be discovered. We worry for Yusef and his depressed near catatonic Amma.

It’s not all about the young men though: in Caroline and Nelson’s life stories. Caroline didn’t want to leave Belfast, but her Ma and brothers made it clear that she was in danger should she stay. The same might be done to her as happened to her cousin, raped, battered and left for dead by a loyalist . Nelson, by contrast, wanted to come to England, planning to find a job and save enough money to buy a ticket for his sweetheart Maisie to join him. His disillusionment with the life he is forced to live in London is palpable, a peaceful man, he doesn’t want to join in with the other immigrants from the Caribbean who would fight those who don’t want them there.

Plus ça change!  Gunaratne brings the generations together through their experiences of violence and extremism bound together with estate living. It all builds up to a devastating climax as the events spiral out of control. This is a tough, vivid, gritty and yes, daring debut novel that didn’t disappoint and marks Gunaratne as a one to watch. (9.5/10)

Source: Review copy

Guy Gunaratne, In Our Mad and Furious City (Tinder Press, April 2018), hardback, 304 pages.

BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

14 thoughts on “The immigrant experience in a North London estate

  1. A Life in Books says:

    So much brouhaha on social media about this one and for so long that I’d given it a wide berth but this is such a convincing review I’ll have to rethink that. Thanks, Annabel.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      When I read the first few pages with all the slang, I wondered… but then I was hooked because the main characters are protrayed so vividly.

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    I glanced at the first pages in the library and worried I wasn’t going to be able to get into the voices … but I think I’ll give it a try! I often get on better with random choices from the Booker longlist than from the shortlist.

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    I’ve just reviewed this one and I’m full of admiration too. It’s depressing reading on many levels (including Selvon’s attitude to his girl once he’d got what he wanted!) but it’s very timely and I hope lots of people read it.

Leave a Reply