Forest Gate

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(336)

Peter Akinti, Jonathan Cape; £12.99

Poverty feels eternal on the gang-riven, brutal, barren estates of east London. In this vivid and energising first novel from Peter Akinti, two teenage friends - James, the youngest in a family of drug dealers, and Ashvin, a Somalian refugee - decide to escape by jumping, nooses around their necks, from the tops of twin tower blocks. Ashvin dies instantly. But James wakes up in hospital to face his dysfunctional family, a feeble psychologist and Ashvin's grieving sister, Armeina.

Bonded by their loss and loneliness, James and Armeina draw together while the narrative shifts its point of view to relate the events which have led up to the boys' cataclysmic act. The Western-fuelled war between Ethiopia and Somalia, the London bombings of 2005, racism, dead-end jobs, MI5's insidious antics, horrors in the hearts of asylum seekers and atrocious social housing form the backdrop to this intense depiction of how things are in London. In this honest engagement alone, Forest Gate is breathtakingly fresh.

But this is no social realism. Instead, authenticity comes from a dazzling, painterly quality of realisation and from a playful dance with the morality tale. Akinti, who was born in east London to Nigerian parents, has a poetical and deft approach to storytelling conventions. His descriptive prose bristles with analysis. He raises the question of the suicide pact as a political statement, an expression of despair and defiance. "You want me to live like this? Then I won't live!" He then inserts murder and mental disorder into the equation. And while he makes flesh the horror of war, he audaciously offers a magical fairy godfather to rescue and watch over the young people as they seek something more than survival: love and nourishment, and the possibility of a new life away from Forest Gate.

This book is hugely enjoyable, a massive reality check intervening in the smug social scene of London literary fiction. It's a fantastic book for young adults in particular because of the striking way the teenagers are drawn as compassionate, communicative, reflective beings. They are disempowered and alienated enough by their circumstances, Akinti seems to be saying, so, acting like a fairy godfather himself, he bestows on his young protagonists emotional intelligence as a tool to use in their quest for freedom and redemption. There's no fairytale ending, but there could be a good outcome. Read, enjoy and let's hope we get more fiction like this.