A disturbing debut exposes the hopelessness of black teenagers trapped in a grim East London neighborhood.
Forest Gate is a tough area, especially for young men dealing with racism, gangs, drug dealings, police harassment and rock-bottom expectations. Best friends James and Ashvin, “tormented boys with troubled hearts,” and Ash’s sister Meina are the protagonists. Ash and Meina were orphaned during the Somali civil war, their parents murdered before Ash’s eyes. James’ father and brothers are drug dealers, but he is desperate to escape the unendurable limitations of his circumstances. As the novel opens, Ash and James jump from separate rooftops at a high-rise block of council flats in a suicide pact. James survives, and the story pulls back to explore the circumstances of the young men’s pain and the different legacies of violence they have experienced. Meina too has known suffering, forced into multiple marriages back in Africa. Now she and James find comfort in each other, but their trials are not over. The author, who grew up in Forest Gate himself, captures the pungent atmosphere of grim urban landscapes (and some extreme violence) in graphic, sensuous language. Akinti’s politics are angry yet coolly articulated. The only disappointment here is his plotting, ragged and increasingly implausible.
Sometimes sketchy and preachy, nevertheless notably passionate and gritty.