Tony's Reviews > Forest Gate: A Novel

Forest Gate by Peter Akinti
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Feb 02, 2010

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bookshelves: novels
Read in January, 2010

This debut novel by the East End-raised son of Nigerian immigrants to England has a pretty clear point of view. And that view is that racism permeates British culture, fashionable multiculturalism is an illusion, and pretty much all black men are locked in a lifelong struggle to break free of the negative expectations they see in the mirror. Personally, I found the expression of these themes a bit on the strident side and sometimes rather clumsily articulated, but then again, as a comfortably middle-class white guy, it could be reasonably argued that I posses none of the experience required to truly engage with the material. Nonetheless, I found the book worth reading in several respects, especially its portrayal of the lives of two Somali immigrants to London, the cultural dislocation they feel, and the oppressive psychic climate of the East End estates that much of the story is set in.

That story is told almost entirely through the voices of an 18-year-old Somali immigrant named Meina, and a 16-year-old black English kid named James, who is the youngest of five drug-dealing brothers. Meina and James are brought together by the dark friendship James has with Meina's brother Ashvin. The two teenage boys converted their despair with life's possibilities into a suicide pact that led to Ashvin's death and James' near death. The bulk of the book follows James and Meina's attempt to pick up the threads of their shattered lives after this tragedy. (If this sounds familiar, it's because the plot, and indeed the book itself, is a kind of homage to James Baldwin's Another Country, which is somewhat tiresomely namechecked a number of times throughout.)

Their pain-filled story comes across like a kind of extreme kitchen sink drama -- imagine a film like Nil By Mouth as done by Spike Lee. The two must struggle to survive and find some way out of the grim slum life that surrounds them. James strikes the reader as a character fully informed by Akinti's own upbringing, and his anguish and frustration with life often feels like the writer's own catharsis -- and thus, sometimes kind of overthought and overwritten. At times his pain and confusion is wonderfully rendered, but at others, he comes across as far too sophisticated and existential an observer of life for a 16-year-old. Meanwhile, despite being raped a number of times in Somalia, Meina, provides a stable core to a story otherwise suffused with troubled souls, including her brother (who witnessed the torture and murder of their parents), at least one of James' gangster brothers and his crack-addict mother, not to mention some clueless well-meaning white folks.

The publisher seems to be positioning the book as a raw and angry one, but it never quite got to that level for me. James doesn't seem angry, so much as frustrated and dismissive of what society has to offer. Meina certainly never comes across as angry, and her brother comes across mainly as the victim of post-traumatic stress. Yes, there is some very graphic violence -- including a devastating rape scene (indeed, rape is a prevalent theme in the book) -- but I'm not sure that makes it a "raw." The final third of the book starts to veer into melodrama turf, especially the actions of one of James' brothers, which read more like a heavy handed metaphor for the black male condition than a realistic conclusion. In the end, it's this kind of heavy handedness that marks the book as a debut and kept me from really falling under its spell.

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