An ambitious mosaic of virtuosic ventriloquism, Guy Gunaratne’s book is an inner city novel for our times, exploring the endurance of social trauma across generations, and conveying the agony and energy of the marginalised, the outsider, and the oppressed. Both a social panorama and a thriller, it contains a vibrant energy and some extraordinary plot twists that go against what might be our cultural expectations. Gunaratne gracefully moves the large and small ambitions of his characters on an expressionist chessboard of a council estate.
If the contents of the story are under tremendous pressure, so are the book’s political themes. This is supposed to be a mad and furious book about a mad and furious city, and I suspect that Gunaratne wants his writing to borrow some of the freedoms of song lyrics and engaged journalism—to deliver political commentary, ardent instruction, and harsh intervention, to praise and to rage. But I also want to hear the characters sing the song of themselves. Gunaratne’s powers of observation are so acute and extractive that he can trust his material to generate its own human significance.
Gunaratne has a gift for inhabiting the lives of his characters, and has used that gift here to give voice to Londoners who are not often seen in contemporary fiction, and who will recognize themselves in this very fine novel — wearing the same trainers, speaking the same road slang, rolling out of the same school gates.
The problem is that novels — like cities — thrive on strange, entropic energies. Excessive planning saps something vital to their survival. And Gunaratne is a very composed, very careful writer. Although interested in the clashing voices of London, of homegrown Grime music, the book itself is as tidy and contrived as a suburb. The characters speak their subtexts and announce their motivations. The rowdiness of the city is conveyed in summary, in blunt statements — “Violence made this city”; “we were London’s scowling youth” — and only rarely staged or subverted. Nor does the carousel of alternating viewpoints serve any real purpose. We see the same scene from different perspectives, but all reinforcing a single story.
Still, the writing can, at times, threaten to turn into something more suited to spoken-word, at odds with flowing prose. Especially Ardan’s voice, influenced as it is by the grime he writes and listens to: heavy with alliteration, sneaky internal rhyme and sprung rhythm... Luckily this turn never comes to pass. The prose remains alive, alert and subtly integrated, with various accents and non-standard Englishes raising themselves up to the same very high literary watermark... What you are left with – always a treat though not by any stretch as essential to all writing as some would have you believe – is a prose that benefits from being read aloud. But more so, a prose that just plain deserves to be read.
In Our Mad and Furious City is Gunaratne’s debut and it is a tinderbox of a novel. It asks what constitutes a community, knowing all the while how fragile communities are and how febrile they can feel. Unfolding over the course of 48 hours, the story focuses on three young men – Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf – living in a surburban north London housing estate during a summer of unrest. The brutal murder of an off-duty soldier by a black man, city riots, and anxieties about radicalised Muslim youths form the shadowy backdrop to the book, locating it in a recognisably recent past. This is that uneasy kind of fiction, heightened in tension, that hovers on the fringes of real events.