book review: In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

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IN OUR MAD AND FURIOUS CITY by Guy Gunaratne
★★★★★
Tinder Press, 2018 (UK)

 

In Our Mad and Furious City is a frenetic and imperfect but unforgettable feat from debut writer Guy Gunaratne. Set in London over the course of two days, it tells the story of three boys and two of their parents, against the backdrop of an incipient riot caused by a local boy killing a British soldier. Yusuf, Selvon, and Ardan are three friends who live in or around a Neasden housing estate, trying to make a future for themselves in a city fraught with violence and extremism.

This book is a defiant look at the classism, racial tensions, and anti-immigration sentiment that plague not only post-Brexit Britain, but also the previous generation’s Britain; it deals in the enduring and intractable nature of violence and the ways in which that ties into national identity for the second-generation immigrants whose voices propel the novel forward. The violence in this novel isn’t specifically tied to one race or religion – one of the older characters reflects on fleeing Northern Ireland during the Troubles; another remembers arriving in London from the Caribbean only to find himself confronted with the Keep Britain White movement in the 1950s. Gunaratne’s depiction of the cyclical and relentless nature of violence can be disheartening, but this novel is more about the choices the characters make, the strength it requires to turn away from brutality and not engage with it.

Written entirely in different dialects whose cadences and vocabularies vary depending on whose point of view chapter it is (one family is from Ireland, another from Montserrat, another from Pakistan), Gunaratne’s prose is gritty and colloquial but also elevated to the level you’d expect from a literary novel (something that Sebastian Barry failed to do convincingly in Days Without End, I thought, but which Gunaratnre manages with aplomb here – I was simultaneously convinced by the authenticity of the narration and impressed by the prose).

So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and a romance of the colours, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feeling its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won’t love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place.

But, as I mentioned above, I don’t think it’s a perfect novel; the frantic pace leads a few unwieldy moments, like the awkward inclusion of a sixth point of view character for only a single chapter, or Gunaratne not giving the novel’s climax much room to breathe. I couldn’t help but to think it could have been improved by another 50 or so pages, but at the same time, it’s such a snapshot piece that in a way I admire all Gunaratne was able to achieve with its brevity.

Only halfway through the Booker list, but this one feels like a winner.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars RoomSnap | Milkman | Everything Under