Man Booker 2018: In Our Mad and Furious City

17th September 2018

In Our Mad and Furious City, Guy Gunaratne

Tinder Press, London 2018

Reviewed by Claire Steele

Guy Gunarantne’s debut novel In Our Mad and Furious City opens with a hymn to the ‘single, mad, monstrous and lunatic city’ of London, a city which declares itself through a fiery, repurposed linguistics. Gunaratne’s prose is uncompromisingly idiomatic: “Our tongues were so soaked in our defences, we only hoped to outlast the day. Just look at how we spoke to one another: ennet-tho, myman and pussyo. Our friendships we called our bloods and our homes we called our Ends. ... We became warrior tribes of mandem…. Our parents knew nothing. And most others? Most others only knew us from the noise we made at the back of the buses.”

Maybe hymn is not quite the right word. The musicality is more given to rap, eskibeat and grime than anything overtly associated with praise. Nevertheless, right away, the language conforms to a certain mode of realism, naturalism even, in which the great shambling city is roughly articulated. However, this is a realism intent on communicating the ‘unrealness’ of London. As Selvon, one of the novel’s five narrators, says, the way to survive is to ‘allow’ a lot.

While this is a city of road-slang extremism, it nevertheless has events: a soldier is murdered by a black boy who hangs him from a street sign; mosques are burned; the streets vibrate with random racism and the suffocating quality of the ordinary. And while these events are shocking, the shock lies in the fact of the ordinariness. The narrative is structured around the stories of three adolescents – Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, and their parents – living in or on the edges of a London housing estate. Their stories play out against a scrim of disaffection, radicalism, aggression and refusal – antonym to the recurrent refrain of allowing. As the voices interweave, Gunaratne takes up the question at the heart of Sam Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners (after whom Selvon is named) and asks: what constitutes a community and how do single young men participate in it?

The answer that he provides is language. The idiolects are not just local colour, but the word on the street; their distortions are the historic context of contemporary life. Language forms our notions of who we are and where we belong; it enfranchises us. But this belonging is under constant low-grade threat. Ardan rises to the challenge of a rap-battle at the back of the bus, but the success is momentary, high-octane, volatile, built on beating down the last verse.

Belonging is layered with a feeling of foreboding, the sense of a future that is uncertain and liable at any moment to go up in flames. At the end of the chapter Ardan comments with wry anachronism (or maybe it isn’t): ‘Gadzooks fam, what glory’.

Whoever has the current beat, whoever runs the streets, the moral landscape of the novel, and of the community, is hot property. There is romance, and there is poetry in this novel, and there is the ‘sorta shame the Lord give you when you love a wretched thing.’ But, rising out of the ashes and the grime is a pure note, and that is the note of love. In the end “We allow it, ennet… this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and a romance of the colours.” It is fitting that the novel is published by Tinder Press for Gunaratne’s Mad and Furious City is a city that is prepared to burn down all the old structures to find something true to say about its communities.

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