I spent an unreasonable amount of time wondering if Selvon was named after Sam Selvon (he was) and a bit more wondering how genuine the slang sounded which was a bit distracting! Gunaratne mentioned in an interview that his publishers tried to police the language, which got me thinking about censoring dialect in books, making it more palatable for mainstream audiences. He seems to have gotten away with enough so that the reader is very familiar with the characters he paints- almost to the point of exaggeration – the peppering of conversations with a million ‘ennet’s and ‘nattans’ sometimes gave the effect of watching caricatures. At times the dialect used seemed inconsistent with rest of a character’s style of speech or thought. I get what he was aiming to do, the protagonists are immediately recognisable as inner city Londoners.
This aside, the story was raw, very alive, very of the time and very well paced. Needed even – there’s nothing else that I’ve read that captures that specific moment in time in London when there was a public nervousness about extremism and the radicalization of young men. Gunaratne uses a friendship group of different ethnicities to highlight the commonalities of racism and working class struggles in our city. There’s a constant tension running through the book, you just know something will happen, kind of like in the second half of Do The Right Thing.
‘For those of us who had elsewhere in our blood, some foreign origin, we had richer colours and ancient callings to hear’
The Jhalak prize-winning debut explores the lines between everyday life on a London estate (somewhere in Neasdon) and the extremism that seems to have seeped into the fabric of living in the city. Gunaratne was inspired by the shocking murder of Lee Rigby and more worryingly, how recognisable the perpetrator was (tracksuit, trainers, ‘normal guy’). In Our Mad And Furious City follows three teenage boys over a 48-hour period after the murder of a British soldier by an indoctrinated young Muslim extremist. Selvon, Ardan and Yusef are friends trying to find their way against a turbulent backdrop of riots and unease.
After the loss of their father, Yusef is increasingly concerned about his brother and the new agenda at their mosque. Selvon aspires to escape by attending Brunel University and Ardan raps- mostly in secret but someone had to, I guess. To emphasise on the impact of racism across generations, Gunaratne also includes older characters. Selvon’s father, Nelson, is an immigrant from Montserrat who remembers the Notting Hill riots and Ardens mother, Caroline an Irish immigrant from Belfast who remembers similarly traumatic times. Including so many characters from first person perspective can make the book seem a bit thin, as if more pages were needed to develop the characters.
What Gunaratne does well is foster familiarity between the reader and the characters, the reader and the setting of Stones Estate. The vibrancy of the descriptions make you feel as though you know the landscape and issues in effect. The main characters possess a vulnerability you often see in city youth: the swagger and bravado are intact but seem as though at the right trigger, it will all fall to pieces. The story seems to hinge on whether and when this trigger will come into effect so the whole narrative always has an urgency to it.
The overriding message is that this is dirty, this is our society. This is even dangerous but this is our London now. It’s not without its flaws but it had me from the start. Out of curiosity, I would definitely read what he writes next.
First awarded in March 2017, the Jhalak Prize, celebrates books by British/British resident BAME writers. It was started by authors Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla and Media Diversified. Gunaratne’s In Our Mad And Furious City was the winner of this award in 2019. Other nominees included Natives by Akala and Built by Roma Agrawal.
In Our Mad And Furious City was also long listed for the Man Booker Prize In 2018 and won The International Dylan Thomas Prize in 2019