Feral Youth by Polly Courtney

I’ve been meaning to read a book by Polly Courtney for some time and rather arbitrarily picked Feral Youth as the first one I wanted to try. Set around the time of the London riots of 2011, the novel follows the life of one young, mixed race girl from Peckham, Alesha. Alesha’s father has never been around and her mother is an alcoholic. Her only family, her fam, is JJ, and he isn’t her real family at all, but more like the brother – possible lover – she never had. As they become more and more reliant on the estate and the local gang to keep them off the streets, we learn how rage against the police and the authorities in general create an explosive climate.

As much as I would like to say that I’m not sure about issue-based literature, and that all that matters is a good tale, it wouldn’t be entirely representative of my own interests and practice. However, when approaching an overtly issue-based novel there is the worry that the story will get buried under the issue: characters can seem two-dimensional, storylines forced. But if a novel that sets out to explore some reasons behind the London riots of 2011 gives us a live character with whom we can sympathise or even empathise, then the issue should be subsumed in the story.

I was concerned that I would find Feral Youth issue heavy, rather than character heavy and I’m pleased to say that in general I did not. Whilst I can’t in any way account for the veracity of Alesha’s experience growing up in an estate in Peckham, I can honestly say that I cared about what happened to her and felt that I could understand at least some of the reasons why she behaved in the way she did. I’m not sure if the connection with her old piano teacher, Miss Merfield, who is white and privileged, certainly in relative terms to Alesha, quite worked for me. Miss Merfield becomes a possible ticket out of the estate and whilst I certainly believe in their connection, is it too neat that Alesha has a talent for music or that the middle classes, namely Miss Merfield, can have problems too? I don’t know. I wanted to feel attached to this novel in the way that I’m attached to Of Mice and Men, which is mentioned in the opening pages. I wanted the voices of the characters to strike chords whose echoes would continue to reverberate years later, but Feral Youth isn’t that kind of novel. It’s pertinent, it’s interesting, it’s provocative, it’s well crafted, but it doesn’t transport me. Again, as with Little Egypt, I hanker for raw edges, for emotions that escape careful plotting.

Feral Youth is an interesting read, but perhaps in my naivety, I wanted to see more. I wanted to know more about JJ. I wanted to see what lies behind his street face. Perhaps I wanted more voices. Perhaps in the end the issues do overwhelm the narrative, whether simply because they are predominant in my mind or because the writer has been unable to push beyond them, I remain unsure of. I suppose ultimately I’m unconvinced and again it has something to do with the novel’s neatness and clarity. But perhaps you won’t be unconvinced. If you have read it, or read it in the future, let me know what you think.

Next week I’m reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, followed by The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough. Do get in touch if there’s a novel you would like me to read and review.