on 1 October 2003
This fantastic, unexpected, hilarious and very sad work of genius kept me up all last night and made me phone in sick this morning just so I could finish it. An unbelievably good read - a real shard of excellence. Why it hasn't been more reviewed and isn't up for the Booker I have no idea. The language is so excellent! The plot so pacey! I could keep going for a long time, but you get my drift.
I first came across White via the Britpulp! anthology, in which his short story "A0" indicated talent and promise. This, his third novel, is set in Shadwell (East End London, between Whitechapel and Wapping), and written entirely in a Cockney-Carribean-South Asian patios that is both astonishing and somewhat dizzying. The experience is not unlike the first time one reads Scots (eg. James Kelman, or more popularly, Trainspotting). There's a lot of idiom and a definite rhythm and cadence, but if you're not from that world, it can take a little getting used to. Here's just a taste from page 85: "That afternoon pass quick init. Nuff runnings fe Zafar a check all them coming and going. Couple a youth check him too init. And Zafar still have a gut feeling for them type a runnings seen and since time a pass him figure that other rude boy what stop earlier on would be plan fe reach in a bit when still knowed where Zafar a go be."
The story concerns Foxy-T and Ruji Babes (names derived from their old graffiti tags), two hardworking young women who manage the E-Z Call Telephone and Internet Centre and live together in a flat above. The place is owned by Ruji's Bangladeshi uncle, who's overseas, and her flash gangster cousin comes by periodically to mind things. Ruji is the businesswoman, good with numbers, and kind of thin and worn down. Foxy-T is the techie, master of the phones, computers, and highly voluptuous. The two make good partners, and there is much speculation as to whether their close friendship extends to the bedroom. Their orderly domain gets thrown into a tizzy when Zafar Iqbal, just out of borstal, ends up on their doorstep. His grandfather used to own the place, and he had been planning on staying there to get back on his feet. The women feel sympathetic to him, and allow him to stay the night.
Of course one night turns into one week, and soon he is coming between the two women and their setup is threatened. This is a fairly familiar plotline, although it's usually the woman coming between two male friends. Although Zafar makes himself useful about the premises, cleaning up, running errands, and so on, his extended stay is never particularly plausible. The dynamic between the threesome is never wholly realized either, and the schism is largely based on Foxy-T's vague fixation on a man she briefly saw in the store. It's all a bit hazy and unconvincing. Fortunately, things are somewhat salvaged by an ending drenched in black humor.
While the plot isn't the greatest, the book is well worth reading for its saturated language and evocative recreation in prose of the neighborhood. Once a Jewish neighborhood, Shadwell is now largely a Bangladeshi one. And the grimy cafeterias, minicab operations, off-licences, and betting shops of the '50s, '60s, and '70s have been supplanted by the video stores, Halal butchers, South Asian bakeries, and internet cafes of the '80s, '90s, and '00s. As a portrait of modern multicultural England, it ranks right up there with, yes, White Teeth.
on 9 October 2007
Foxy-T, Ruji Babes and Zafar Iqbal should be stars by now. This book is beautiful and filmic; written in a sharply caught Bangla London patois, lyrical, musical and fast. This is one of the great London novels. Here the geography is real and the people who inhabit this harshly lit world as detailed and loved as the author's cherished domain. The plot is simple - it doesn't need to be a labyrinthine construct; this could happen, you think. People do this. They behave strangely, and the inevitability of Zafar's fate makes this a beautiful and emotional response to real places in a real time. I think it's a masterpiece. Astonishing and audacious? Absolutely.
on 24 June 2006
I came to this book through reading a review in which a comparison was made with Gautam Malkani's "Londonstani".
The characters must surely be drawn from life. Keenly observed, they are redrawn on these pages with respect and affection from the author. Plot was great. Language likewise. I could have given the 5 page sexual fantasy a miss, but never mind.
Above all, I rate this book for conveying the (claustraphobic) sense of living out a life within the streets of just one London neighbourhood.