Book review:In Our Mad And Furious City, Guy Gunaratne

Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel makes you sit up, hold your breath and take note of a London that is far removed from tennis or theatre or the royalty.

There will be books you will remember for showing you a side to a city that you may never otherwise experience. Not as a tourist, or quite often, not even as a resident of that city. What Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram did for Mumbai, Dominique Lapierre’s City of joy did for Kolkata, Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad And Furious City does for London.

Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel makes you sit up, hold your breath and take note of a London that is far removed from tennis or theatre or the royalty. Set in The Stones, a North London housing estate, sometime in the late 2000s, the story unfolds over events that take place over 48 hours. The book is written from the point of view of five narrators - three of whom are ‘youngers’, as the young men are called, who are close friends, and two ‘olders’, who are two of the young men’s parents. 

Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf are all second-generation immigrants from the Caribbean, Ireland and Pakistan respectively. The three men live in a tinderbox atmosphere in the estate, all the more volatile after the murder of an off-duty, back-from-service soldier by a black man. We see that the three men identify more with each other as ‘breddars’ through their common London link. Their own racial backgrounds matter less than the belonging that comes from a game of footie and from ‘being part of a young nation of mongrels.’

Their language is of the street and Guy Gunaratne has made it come alive on the printed page brilliantly. The narratives burst with London street slang and very soon words like ‘ennit, nuttan, bants, kiboshed, yuno, cotch’ become part of your vocabulary. Not since Marlon James’s A brief history of seven killings has a writer recreated the rhythms and phonetics of spoken language as sparklingly as Gunaratne has. 

The ‘youngers’ aspire to escape from their lives in the estates. For Selvon, the escape is external, through the world of sport - running and boxing. For Ardan, it is internal, through the world of music, more specifically writing rap lyrics for the Grime music he lives for. In the backdrop is also a radicalised Moslem group based around a local mosque; as also a group of white racists. 

The narratives of the ‘olders’, Caroline and Nelson, initially seemed a little superfluous; deliberate additions by the author to present more perspectives of violence and radicalism. Caroline with her traumatic backstory with the IRA, and Nelson with his still fresh chilling memories of the Teddy Boy Racists attacks of the 1950s and encountering the KBW (Keep Britain White) movement. Yet, as the story progresses, one begins to see how these two characters actually present an alternative to dealing with violence, having been thrown into the ugliness of racism and rage from early on. Their continuity and coping mechanisms possibly present the author’s message to a world where reacting and lashing out to any provocation and friction need not be the only response.

Guy Gunaratne’s mastery of narrative techniques makes this book all the more remarkable as a debut novel. If one were to pull out the details of the narrative and look at the book from an experiential perspective, it is a little like being drawn into a whirlpool.

For anyone who has lived in a city that is a melting pot of races, classes and religions, this book is a reminder of how fragile that balance of happy co-existence is. How easy it is to lose the camaraderie and bonds that tie us, outside of our cultures and creeds.

The book’s predominant theme is violence, fury, anger, rage (no surprises there; it’s practically writ into the title). It is the struggle of living in an atmosphere of social tensions and terrorism that could catch a light and burst into flames at any time - that the larger theme in this book becomes one of internal survival, on your own terms. 

The circular narrative draws you in faster and faster till you are sucked deep into the vortex of the happenings. 

For the younger ones living on the Estate, the book shows us the pathos of not belonging - either to the race/religion they were born into, or the city their parents took refuge in. The story could so easily have gone into the dark end and left you with a sense of hopelessness. “This violent air, grey, thick with thunder...” or “See the world get dark. See the world get darker still.” 

And so, surprisingly, this is a book that leaves you with hope. Through the quiet rebellion of the disabled Nelson. Through Caroline’s gentle lyrical Irish wisdom. Through the depressing darkness, after the novelty of reading Gunaratne’s London street slang fades, those words of Caroline’s are what will stay. For that alone, read the book. You may even want to have those wonderful words framed and put up someplace you can read them every day.

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Book review:In Our Mad And Furious City, Guy Gunaratne

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