Set in a London estate in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, In Our Mad and Furious City, explores the life of five of the estate residents. It’s a brilliant book about life in London, and struggles against racism, oppression, religious expectations, and uniting them all – poverty. I was rooting for all these characters so badly during the latter stages of the story. No spoilers here though, don’t worry!
Three of the characters are young men on the estate. Selvon is an athlete desperate to be able to escape the estate life. Yusuf a muslim boy whose father, the local Imam, died. He is being watched over by the new leaders of the mosque. And Ardan, a boy obsessed with music and a talented grime artist himself, held back by such low self worth. These three are friends, and spend hours playing football on the square between the four tower blocks of the estate, along with a background cast of diverse estate characters.
Added to these three young voices are two older characters. Nelson, his thoughts trapped inside his head after a stroke, he came over to London as a young man in the 1960s from Montserrat. He thinks back to when he arrived, with gangs of Teddy Boys terrorising the black community, Mosley standing for election locally, and racist violence all around. Finally there is Caroline, a single mother from Ireland, haunted by her family’s involvement with the IRA.
Each character has a distinct vernacular and reading from each characters perspective is a real joy from a language point of view. The young men each have their own struggles while outwardly navigating the social hierarchies around them, and obsessing over girls and grime.
In Our Mad and Furious City is set in the aftermath of a terrorist incident where a young black man kills a soldier. It’s reminiscent of the murder of Lee Rigby from 2013. This is the incident that Gunaratne used as inspiration for the story, after the video showing Rigby’s killers went viral, Gunaratne says the thing that was so striking was how the killers were so familiar to him, and he could see himself in them, and how they spoke, rather than identifying with the soldier. This is what he wanted to explore, and provides the set up for In Our Mad and Furious City. In the opening chapter, Selvon expresses how the viral video of the killer seemed just like one of the lads from school, from the estate:
He called himself the hand of Allah, but to us he looked 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. The blood was not what shocked us. For us it was his face like a mirror, reflecting our own confused and frightened hearts.
The reason I picked up In Our Mad and Furious City to read was because Guy Gunaratne was one of the writers speaking at a Manchester Literature Festival event I went to last week. I’m so glad I read this book, and hearing him talk about his own life and his inspiration for the book was really fascinating.
London and the estate life are a strong presence throughout the story. The current of violence and extremism in the air after the terrorist incident is prevalent throughout, and builds in the background through the several days over which the story is set. It took me until about half way through the book before I really felt invested in the characters and the story, but oh, I was not let down by the emotional roller coaster of the second half. I desperately wanted every character to get exactly what they wanted: to escape, improve or make their lives happy.
As a teacher, I really enjoyed the aspects of the story that were to do with the young men building aspirations and talking about their school life. Selvon is the only character with aspirations to get to University and his training is part of his plan to get a scholarship to a sporty Uni. I loved, and felt so sad, at this exchange between Selvon and Ardan:
-What about you? You going uni? you apply?
Shrug the question off, as if. These are new rules now, ennet. During school term no-one ever spoke nuttan about no uni. Everyone was trying to bunk off school, not long it out. Now I’m left feeling like a BTEC dickhead just because I ain’t going uni and everyone else is. As if it was even my choice in the first place.
-How am I going to uni fam?
-Didn’t you get the grades?
-Blood, I did alright in mocks. But I dunced my GCSEs. I never got proper marks for sixth form. But they let me off, ennet. Mum’s on benefits and that, so.
Selvon looks away and I watch him think about it.
-What you gonna do then?
-Minimum wage, ennet.
I say it and give a laugh like fuck it.
I just want to hug Ardan and help him out! And that phrase ‘BTEC dickhead’ nearly killed me.
Great book. Would recommend to anyone 😀