6 April 2014
I was invited to review this work by the author herself. I don't review fiction normally (it's been said that I don't review anything 'normally') but 'Once Bad Intentions' struck me as the sort of book that would, hopefully, give me an authentic glimpse of a world which was hitherto completely unknown to me. And we're not talking about the surface of Jupiter or the dark side of the Moon... this is the South London 'ghettos' of the 1990s. No distance at all from where I spent my teenage years a decade before but, to all intents and purposes, a completely different planet. I raided my piggy bank and bought the book, not with the overall intention of reviewing it, but simply to learn something of the harsher realities of existence. In short, to rattle the doors and windows of my comfort zone, just a little.
Set very firmly in the 90s, through constant clever references to the music and must-be-seen-in designer labels of the time, the story is multi-faceted and very well put together. There is a romantic element to it but, being a bit cynical about all that sort of stuff, I was much more interested in immersing myself in the black cultural aspect to the story. Suffice it to say, in a world of violence, crime, drugs and the sort of materialism that makes Paris Hilton seem humble, the central love story is sweetly old-fashioned.
The idea of having a main female protagonist who is suffering the sometimes divergent effects of a whole parade of different influences is a clever one, and it is cleverly handled. Stephanie Johnson is a bright, black youngster just starting secondary school when we first meet her. The story is written in the first person and, through clever use of her diary (or 'Di' as she refers to it), we get real insight into her inner thought processes, particularly in the matter of her significant anger issues, as we follow her intermittently though her formative years. Her home life is far from idyllic and her mother sees violence as a means to an end, so it is hardly surprising that Stephanie adopts the same approach to life in general. She has, as she later says, been dealt a bit of a bum hand in life. But it's the choices she herself makes that ultimately open her eyes to the fact that she can, at least in theory, be whoever she wants to be.
The Bible is referred to quite a lot. That was an education for me, for I was completely ignorant about its contents before reading this book; something I may end up paying for in the long term by being sent on the down escalator by the Grim Reaper instead of the up one. Religion is a fundamental part of Stephanie's life, although she has a complicated relationship with its teachings. She is a mass of insecurities, prepared to do anything and everything for the chance to 'belong' somewhere. In that sense, the path she initially starts down is the same one that any kid in the country might just find themselves upon, if the circumstances were so tragic as to encourage that. What makes Stephanie's tale all the more interesting is the Caribbean / African element to it, set against the background of 90s gangsta rap culture.
There is great humour to be found in the book, which makes the story much more palatable and yet, strangely, makes Stephanie seem a lot more dangerous, certainly in the early chapters. A central character this violent on her first day at secondary school, which is where we first encounter her, is a scary prospect for any reader. The notion of feeling sympathetic towards her is a pretty alien one to begin with. Incredibly though, despite the random acts of violence Stephanie presides over, she does rapidly become extraordinarily likeable. You just want to hug her, honestly. Well, not when we first meet her; if you tried to put your arms around that bundle of confusion and anger she would doubtless snap them both off at the elbow and then beat you to death with them. No, the later Stephanie, the one trying so hard to find her identity and to keep control of the more 'volatile' aspects of her character. There is a sense throughout the book that she is really a decent person who just seems to attract the unfavourable attentions of both fate and the sort of people who are going to get her into trouble. For all her faults, you just want her to have the chance of a decent life. That emotional investment on the part of the reader is nicely rewarded in the end.
Monique Dixon has done a superb job of making the South London black 'patois' come alive in the minds of the reader. Actually, that's not strictly true; this particular reader found it completely impossible to resist actually reading the dialogue aloud as he went along. As, indeed, he also found it impossible not to make a whole range of accompanying Ali G-style hand gestures. For that reason alone, I would suggest that 'Once Bad Intentions' is perhaps not the sort of book to become engrossed in while out and about in any sort of public setting. If this kind of speech pattern is not your usual way of talking, you need to be careful about reading it and then attempting any sort of interaction with other people too. Folk who spoke to me on the telephone while I was engaged in reading this book must have thought they'd dialled a wrong number and somehow reached Rastamouse.
That being said, properly negotiating the incredible amount of phonetically written dialogue in this book is quite hard work. You really do need to concentrate.
Being honest, I wasn't sure whether I would be giving this four stars or five. Indeed, I'm still not. The book is well-plotted and nicely paced, with 'real' characters and, unfortunately, all too real scenarios. From that point of view, I shouldn't be hesitating in giving it five stars. And, apart from acknowledging the odd grammatical error or misplaced word, giving it four stars would seem to be punishing the book for my own undeniable inadequacies as a (supposedly) intelligent reader. But, I don't know, I did find myself getting lost on occasion amongst the seemingly endless array of different female characters. One of them, Mary-Anne, even tried to add to my confusion by trying to pass herself off as 'Marie-Anne' when she thought I wasn't paying attention. Devious, very devious. Also, the writing style is occasionally rather too florid for me. Beautifully done but, again, sometimes quite hard work to get through. I'm certainly not known for my intelligence, and parts of the book did lose me in various streams of overly descriptive words. I must emphasise though, that is purely my personal reading taste. Normal, sensible, folk will no doubt appreciate Monique Dixon's immense creative effort in a way that I, unfortunately, couldn't always.
This is a worthwhile, though time-consuming read. I'm not sure I would describe it as being a particularly 'enjoyable' one though. I found the insight into 'black culture' fascinating, and that was very neatly handled indeed by the author. But there is something unsettling about the story itself that I'm not sure will ever leave me: and that is the notion that, for every Stephanie Johnson, for every person who has the courage to escape from a life which they would, presumably, never have chosen for themselves, there are countless others who simply accept the cards life has dealt them and get on with things. Countless others whose lives are changed irreparably forever thanks to 'bad choices'.
Stephanie Johnson could have been one of them. Maybe the rest don't have the same desire that she had to make changes... maybe they don't have the opportunities. Maybe life has trapped them and robbed them of all hope. Whatever - I can't seem to stop thinking about THOSE people.
That's a powerful enough reason right there for me to give this book five stars.