“These were the hidden violences. Day-long deaths that snuffed out our small and limited futures. Since we grew up around London towers, struggle was a standard echo in our speech, in thought, in action. But it was only after the release of that one video, clipped from a phone of a witness, that everyone else saw the truth. The image on every news channel and paper, a black boy had killed an off-duty soldier. Soldier-boy we called him…He called himself the hand of Allah, but to us it looked as if he had just rolled out of 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.”
At the heart of extremist violence lies the knowledge that one act can transform the trajectory of a society. We are a race built on a foundation of symbols – from the messages tied up in the clothes we wear to the distillation of centuries of religious tradition into the image of a crucifix. The communicative and symbolic power of violence is integral to its perpetration. Terrorists rarely, if ever, carry out terrorist acts for the purpose of their immediate brutality. It is the shockwaves created by the act – the fear, division, and weakness – that provide the impetus. It is the messages that this violence carries and the symbolic potential of a country invaded and infiltrated (in many cases, by people that it claims as its own) that give terrorism its barbaric efficacy. The killing of Lee Rigby, an off duty soldier walking near the Woolwich Artillery Barracks in London in 2013, carried similar symbolic hope for its perpetrators. After attacking Rigby and still covered in his blood, one of the assailants – Michael Adebolajo – made his case to a witness, who was recording Adebolajo via phone camera. Adebolajo spoke of his actions as vengeance for the murder of Muslims, demanded that the British people remove the government, and assured those watching that “you will never be safe.” It was an act of terrorism that played itself out live via the internet and one that struck those watching for the lack in superficial ‘otherness’ to Rigby’s murderers.
In Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City, the author draws from Rigby’s murder as a point of inspiration. A courageously broad examination of extremism, the novel retains its peculiarly Londinian elements through expertly rendered dialogue and an authoritative take on the complexity inherent in a community of racial and cultural diversity across generations. The novel is narrated from the perspectives of five different characters: the teenage grime-enthusiast Ardan and his Irish mother, Caroline; Yusuf, a young muslim battling attempts at conscription into the local extremist Muhajiroun; and Selvon, a determined athlete hoping to reach Olympic heights, and his father, Nelson, an immigrant of the ‘Windrush’ generation, now confined to a wheelchair. The characters are united in their efforts to exist and cohabit on a Neasden estate, known to the novel’s youth as “the Ends.” However, attempts to make sense of the frenetic anger and vitality of life on the edges of contemporary London are hampered by the 48 hours of violence and fear that In Our Mad and Furious City describes. Taking place as the residents of the estate grapple with the murder of an unnamed soldier and the extremist protests that follow, the characters, young and old, are forced to confront disparities in their own cultural identities and the cyclical nature of inherited violence.
“I think about why it had to be a younger that done it. Why it was that when we saw the eyes of the black boy with the dripping blade, we felt closer to him than that soldier-boy slain in the street. But now I know this city and its sickness of violence and mean living. These things come in sharp ruptures that don’t discern. It was the fury. Horror curled into horror. Violence trailing back for centuries, I heard as much in mosque and from rudeboys on road. So when the riots blew up in the Square, when the Umma came out and the Union Jack burned in the June air, the terror had become unwound and lightweight. Each of us were caught in the same swirl, all held together with our own small furies in this single mad, monstrous, and lunatic city.”
Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Gunaratne’s debut already comes with some hefty recommendations. Praised by Marlon James and Ali Smith for its unflinching attention to the realities of life at the heart of immigrant London, In Our Mad and Furious City is a novel that captures both the consciousness and the conscience. Published against the backdrop of Brexit Britain and the stark divisions given voice via politics, Gunaratne’s story is one that exists at the crux of the disputes over which the British populace is currently waging war. It is a troubling portrait, largely because the lives that Gunaratne describes exist on the periphery of our understanding and willingness to empathise, yet occupy so much of the space given over to popular derision and condemnation. The fire at Grenfell Tower – a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of 72 people – casts a particularly violent light on this hypocrisy. In Our Mad and Furious City is a novel pulsating with necessity, a vibrant portrait of a city as alive at its fringes as in the bustling predictability of Trafalgar Square or Piccadilly Circus.
The success of In Our Mad and Furious City owes much to Gunaratne’s skill with the vernacular that he utilises in the voices of Selvon, Ardan, and Yusuf. The ‘ennets’, ‘breddas’, and ‘nuttans’ speak to an amalgamation of cultures that Gunaratne captures so expertly in his narrative. It is a world of “borrowed idioms and shopped American verses” that speaks to the coexistence of “Jamaicans, Irish pikeys, Nigerians, Ghanaians, South Indians, Belgalis. Proper Commonwealth kids, ennet.” Gunaratne confesses that his goal was less one of authenticity and more one of accuracy: “The way the voices just jump around, that feels like London to me, a kind of mulch and dissonance. I wanted reading the book to feel as if you were in the middle of the city, with its voices echoing and rippling around you,” (The Guardian). This aspect of life on the estate is something that In Our Mad and Furious City perfectly encapsulates. It is world in which language captures the evolution of a community thrown together by means and necessity, where one’s dialect distills his identity. With the older characters, Gunaratne has a slightly harder time capturing both authenticity and accuracy. Caroline’s voice is characterised by a frequent over-reliance on Irish turns-of-phrase, causing the narrative to fall into something approaching caricature. What Gunaratne lacks here, however, he more than makes up for in the plot that he affords Caroline’s past, as she explores the ramifications of her family’s involvement with the IRA and her subsequent departure to London. Despite the dialect veering slightly off-target, Caroline’s story is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and unexpected elements of the novel’s parallel narratives.
“You want know what that sign mean? he said. It stand for Keep Britain White…He took the cigarette from him lips and stick it into mine. Taste of mud come to me. I pinch it out with my fingers. It had nearly burn out and was not worth a second try. Jimbroad leave me in the lamplight staring at the letters. Was an ugliness in this Britain, I feel it then. But I had not learn it yet. I had learn to drink a bitter, smoke a weed, learn to work and play lairy, but not that. To see it there writ across the brick, it have me numb and leave me feeling a sorta deep-down shame. Sorta shame the Lord give you when you love a wretched thing. Was how it feel like when I realize that this Britain here did not love me back, no matter how much I feel for it.”
Britain has a complicated relationship with immigrants and immigration. Where its colonial extravagances have been characterised as a kind of paternalistic ‘mothering’ of its subjects, the incorporation of non-residents into British life has been a site of incredible tension for decades. The xenophobic sentiments underlying the pro-Brexit campaign, as well as the very existence of far-right groups such as the English Defence League, have operated as a social and political tinderbox, with periodic explosions that are never truly extinguished. In Our Mad and Furious City positions this unrelenting cruelty alongside the extremism that erupts from a cultural disconnect harping back to Britain’s colonial era. Nelson, who emigrated to London from Montserrat after World War II, followed a call from the UK to its colonial subjects for assistance in rebuilding the country. “And after everything Britain call me, I explain, the Mother Country call we come.” On this noble project, however, Nelson is met with riots, violence, and the followers of Oswald Mosley. This disconnect – the feeling of ‘England for the English’ where English means white, non-immigrant, and not newly settled – is a dynamic that infects the contemporary portrait of Gunaratne’s London.
As the youth of In Our Mad and Furious City study their “small li[ves]” and try to work out their best route to freedom from the claustrophobic pull of the estate, the reader never escapes the sense that, for all its frantic energy, the lives of these characters are boundaried by the exclusion that they have inherited. England, with its many virtues, remains a country in which the poor are routinely derided as scroungers and exhibited to the populace in a series of supposedly enlightening Channel 4 documentaries. The characters of Gunaratne’s novel are the ‘hoodies,’ whose aspirations – whether Ardan’s desire for musical renown or Selvon’s athletic hopes – are ignored in favour of reductionism to stereotype. ‘Chav’, ‘pikey’, and ‘sponger’ are all words that are bandied about, invoked by anyone looking toward exclusion as a solution to problems (poverty, extremism) that require complex solutions. For those in the position to provoke social or political change, it is always easier to keep problems on the periphery and groups on the fringes of society than to effect long-term positive solutions. In Our Mad and Furious City is a study on the implications of a society that sanctions exclusion. While extremism exists in even the most progressive and inclusive societies, we know that poverty and a lack of opportunity are inextricably tied to social violence and domestic terrorism. Gunaratne’s work reminds us that it should not take a tragedy like the fire at Grenfell Tower to examine our own prejudices and treat people like people. His characters, fierce in their commitment to their community and their own futures, are a perfect reminder of what fiction can do at its best – widening our circle of compassion and contradicting the stereotypes on which blind power thrives.