A soldier lies dead, fascists protest on the streets, a mosque burns, and Guy Gunaratne’s outstanding debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City earns its place on the Booker longlist. Ostensibly the story of a council estate in Neasden, North London, the novel follows several characters for forty-eight hours as they navigate the aftermath of a horrendous murder, putting the local mosque under the spotlight at the worst time.
For Selvon, Ardan, and Yusuf, life is about football, grime, and girls, until it isn’t, until everything else comes crashing in. Yusuf’s father was the local Imam, and his death has left a void at the head of the mosque that’s being filled by people looking to exploit the Muslim youth. Selvon is also fatherless in his own way, his father Nelson incapacitated after a stroke. Selvon is ambitious, running and boxing, with the Olympics in his sights. Ardan’s less ambitious, though he’s a talented rapper and his love of grime is what drives him. These are the kids of immigrants, of people like Nelson and Caroline who narrate chapters in the book about an older London, about older conflicts. Here, the stories of The Troubles, the Windrush generation, the second rise of Oswald Mosely, and the Notting Hill race riots put the book into a wider context. This time in which we live finds the country on the brink of something. Fascism is on the rise, radicalism seeps into the local mosque, and the book has a horrible sense of inevitability and doom around it. Something, you feel, is going to explode sooner or later, and when it does, the results are devastating.
Gunaratne writes each chapter with distinct character voices. Nelson is written in a Jamaican patois, Caroline has an Irish inflection, and the three teenagers read a bit like this:
“Most man-tho, even Selvon and Yoos, they still on their Yankee-made hip-hop. Allow that. Why be on that gas when London’s got our own good moves? Even if. Even if it sounds ugly, cold and sparse. Even if the beats are angry, under scuddy verses, it’s the same noise as on road.”
It’s a big achievement that this kind of writing works, that the words Gunaratne puts into these kids’ mouths feels real and authentic. It feels like faint praise to say something like that about this book, but in truth, it’s the authenticity that shines through again and again. Those voices are poetry and Gunaratne steps up time and time again in the novel to deliver some knockout writing.
For a book that covers the rise of the far-right in London, extremism seeping in to a mosque, the working class and grime, this is a book that has one eye in the past. As I said earlier, two characters, Nelson and Caroline, tell their stories of how they reached London. Both of them are immigrants and both have experienced religious or racial intolerance. With this cross-generational look at London and England, Gunaratne tells us that this is nothing new, that this has happened before and that racism bubbles up again and again. “Oh leave the world to get on with, the past to the past” one character says at a pivotal moment, but the book can’t, and neither can we. When Brexiteers keep harping on about the good old days, and when their outlook on post-Brexit life is based on us surviving a world war, the past is key to everything. History, the book wants to say, is right there for us to learn from, but we won’t, because in a way we’re all a part of the same long history. “It all felt like it was simply part of the same slow collapse,” says Yusuf in the novel, and it’s true. The two days that the novel covers don’t feel like a standalone incident, nor do they feel like the culmination of something, instead they are just another explosion in a mad city that is always burning.
Any Cop?: In Our Mad and Furious City is La Haine in North London, it’s Do the Right Thing in the capital, it’s an angry, powerful novel that feels of the moment, immediate and present. It’s a real shame that it didn’t make it to the Booker shortlist, but nevertheless, this remains one of the best books of the year so far, and one of the best modern novels about our capital.