The end of the year always seems to mark a slowdown in the publishing industry, as attention turns toward the first quarter’s most hyped titles — the calm before the next storm. Enter the glory of awards season: Several novels by British authors are landing stateside in 2018’s waning months, building on the buzz of high-profile Man Booker Prize nominations (and well-received launches in their home countries). Graywolf Press accelerated publication for both the shortlisted Everything Under and the victorious Milkman — each excellent and blazingly original — and now, the longlisted In Our Mad and Furious City has been dropped smack in the middle of December, a literary dead zone. Yet the novel is anything but lifeless: It’s an introduction to a voice so fiery it burns to the touch.
This is not to say Mad and Furious always works. Its author, Guy Gunaratne, based in London and of Sri Lankan descent, has crafted a tone poem of his city, its tensions and inequalities that persist amid the encroachment of extremism. His is a virtuosically contemporary depiction, hyper-attuned to the smells and noises of the “council estates” — known in the U.S. as public housing — where the book takes place. The story unfolds over a tight 48 hours in present-tense prose, weaving together five characters’ perspectives, with a foreboding sense of despair hanging over them.
London’s grime culture pulses through Mad and Furious, which centers on friends Selvon, Ardan, and Yusuf — young men chasing soccer dreams and pretty girls. Their attempts at a carefree adolescence make for a brutal contrast with their surroundings: poverty, bigotry, terror. Gunaratne places action echoing real-life events on his novel’s margins, most expressly the murder of an off-duty soldier (resembling the 2013 death of Lee Rigby). He’s fascinated by the experience of alienation, interrogating processes of radicalization with sympathy and surprising fatalism. Born to Pakistani parents, Yusuf, who narrates the distinctive prologue, draws the attention of certain terrorist factions hoping to recruit him; caught between cultures, he’s the book’s vulnerable heart, “always with his hands in his pockets, using his elbows to point.”
It’s obvious Gunaratne knows these boys well, eschewing coming-of-age clichés in an effort to thoroughly, authentically detail their lives and pain. His rendering, violent and pointed as it may be, brims with empathy. There’s also a sort of experimental ambition here. Dialogue and slang are employed generously, near-imposingly specific to the North London milieu. Naturalism is not the goal, necessarily, but Gunaratne’s writing tends to fall out of rhythm, reaching for a feeling, a lyricism, it can’t seem to find. Still, the colloquial approach has its strengths: All the boys so believably occupy their world, so intensely feel fear and excitement and disconnection, that Mad and Furious manages to offer them what even the most well-intentioned fiction often falls short of: true dignity.
The novel periodically expands, admirably if unevenly, into the hearts and minds of Ardan’s mother, Caroline, and Selvon’s father, Nelson. Caroline is a despondent alcoholic, revisiting her traumatic past with a drunken bravado (and an excessive propensity for muttering “aye,” lest her Irishness weren’t crystal-clear); Nelson’s story is equally intriguing, as flashbacks depict his experience as a Caribbean laborer weathering vicious racism in the immediate post-World War II period. Their sections permeate a distance, relative to the main trio, widening the novel’s scope.
And scope is key, since Mad and Furious is inseparable from the profound instability characterizing the U.K. and Europe as a whole at this very moment. One could mistake this as sharp narrative journalism — an on-the-ground portrait of a community prone to alarming headlines and misguided perceptions, developed with nuance and passion. More fundamentally, it’s a strikingly sad tracing of lives kept on the fringes, where the turn to extremism can make as much sense as anything else. Gunaratne calls for understanding. He’s not the first to break fiction’s boundaries of modern London wide open — see last year’s superb Home Fire, among others — but he adds to a growing chorus of urgent, explosive reframings. Mad and Furious, indeed. B+