When Fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered on a South London street in 2013, by attackers who claimed to be Islamists, the shock for many locals lay not so much in the brutal details of his death as in the familiar face of the young man who held his bloodied hands up for the cameras in the aftermath. The killer looked, as one of the narrators of Guy Gunaratne’s striking, Booker-longlisted debut tells us, “as if he had just rolled out the same school gates as us. He had the same trainers we wore. Spoke the same road slang we used.”
A fictional version of Rigby’s murder forms the backdrop to Gunaratne’s novel, which unfolds over a few restless days in a working-class area of Neasden, the Northwest London suburb where Gunaratne himself grew up and for which he clearly retains an exasperated affection. Just as in 2013, this crime too is exploited by far-right groups, one of which stages a violent march through the Stones Estate. After a prophetically styled prologue, we join the novel’s five main characters as they wake up to the wreckage of the night before and narrate the novel in turn, in first-person voices that cover an impressive range of registers and contexts. There’s Selvon, an athletic young man who listens to motivational podcasts while running through the estate; Ardan, his decidedly unathletic friend who spends his nights writing lyrics on rooftops and dreaming of making it as a grime artist; Caroline, an older Irish woman who struggles with loneliness and whose connection to the other characters becomes clear only late in the book; Nelson, an older man left mute by a stroke, preoccupied by memories of emigrating from Montserrat to 1950s Notting Hill; and Yusuf, who is caught up in the politics of succession following the death of his imam father. Yusuf’s father’s adherence to a traditional practice of Islam, suffused with art and poetry, has been supplanted by the new imam’s association with the radically politicized Al-Muhajiroun movement. In a pivotal scene, Yusuf is forcibly removed from a courtyard soccer game by two Muhajiroun heavies — distant cousins of his who are shown to have always been bullies, but who now have a cause to which they can attach their thuggery.
These themes of violence and the causes to which violence is enlisted are extended into both Nelson’s memories of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and Caroline’s memories of her Belfast Republican family’s activities in the 1970s. Indeed, much of the novel’s narrative engagement comes more from the unfolding revelations about the characters’ back stories than from their current predicaments or occasional hopes for the future. For all its energetic storytelling and (frequent) crosscutting, the novel feels curiously static; we are told at the beginning that the mosque will burn and the crowds gather, and after 200 pages of foreshadowing this duly takes place. It feels as though Gunaratne wanted to sweep his readers up in a “mad and furious” rush of drama (and that semi-tautology in the novel’s title gives an indication of the elaborate prose he sometimes employs in pursuit of this drama), when in fact his strengths are in the quieter details — of personal stories, nuanced characterizations and especially in his multivocal breadth of register.
And it’s for those details that this book should be read. Gunaratne has a gift for inhabiting the lives of his characters, and has used that gift here to give voice to Londoners who are not often seen in contemporary fiction, and who will recognize themselves in this very fine novel — wearing the same trainers, speaking the same road slang, rolling out of the same school gates.