Contained within 48 hours in London, set mostly in an area known as the Estates, five characters will come together in violence, hope, and a sort of love.
Based loosely around the 2011 London riot, these 48 hours take place after a soldier is killed and his body strung up. Tension is high in the city, streets blocked off, and religious feeling ready to boil over. For the most part though, our main characters feel very separate from this central tension, at least until the climax of the novel. They each have their own concerns, some immediate, some long in the past.
The voice of the novel switches between five characters, each section headed with their name, which was helpful because I had trouble telling some of them apart. The three young men – Selvon, Ardan, and Yusuf – sounded terribly alike to me. While their interests differ and became clearer as the novel progressed, they spoke in the same way, using the same slang. I don’t know if it’s because I’m old or because I’m not familiar with London slang but their voices drove me crazy. Gunaratne repeats the same words over and over again, a verbal tic that makes sense when spoken but was aggravating on the page.
The three boys, almost at the end of their teen years, are friends in the way that teen boys often are. They play football together, hang out together, and know very little of the inner workings of each other’s minds or their personal struggles. They show their care for one another in small ways but can also be thoughtless. Selvon lives off Estate and longs to leave London. Ardan is full of rhyme and dreams of making music but is timid in real life. Yusuf, the son of the former imam at the local mosque, is caught between his religious and secular life. There is a secret about his brother that weighs heavily on him and his story probably has the most tension as we wait to learn what has happened to his family.
Nelson and Caroline are of an older generation. Both are immigrants to London, Nelson from Jamaica and Caroline from Belfast. Both have struggled in London and neither yet feels like they quite belong. Each of their stories are mostly in the past, detailing why they came to London and what they left behind. Their voices also offer something different, as well as a glimpse at the broad history of immigration London contains.
There is a lot of potential here and Gunaratne excels at evoking a rough sort of beauty. The beauty of a city full of dirt and suffering but also possibility. The setting of the riot felt rather underused in the end or, rather, abused as a sort of deus ex machina when a climax was needed. While the riots were building around the characters through the first two-thirds of the novel, none of them seemed particularly concerned. And then it suddenly explodes right in the middle of them.
I enjoyed this other view of London, a city I’m familiar with only through fiction. This isn’t posh or touristy or particularly appealing but the city did feel real and alive and added a fascinating element when other aspects of the novel fell short.