Overall I enjoyed this book but a felt it needed more work and didn’t reach its full potential.
The book is about some fictional London riots, it is inspired by the real riots in 2011. We follow a cast of characters involved in various ways: a family who live on the estate at the heart of the riots, the chief of police, the ambitious Home Secretary and his scheming entourage.
Some of the characters are more engaging and convincing than others. My favourite was Peter, the Home Secretary, had the whole book been about him and his plotting for power I think I would have enjoyed it much more. The least convincing I found was Cathy, who lived on the Lovelace estate with her teenage daughter. Her character felt very two dimensional and also not very entertaining, I mean you could say that a scheming politician is a two dimensional cliché – but at least they are fun to read! Cathy is a sort of dull too-good-to-be-true do-gooder, she cares deeply about her community but seems like an outsider too, no real explanation is given as to why she is living in relative squalor on a estate that is about to be demolished. The book doesn’t tell us her background but she doesn’t seem to originate from that estate which makes you ask “how did she end up there?” It was interesting that I had a chance to go to an event where Gillian Slovo was talking about her work, one of the audience asked her what Cathy does for a living (the book mentions her coming and going from work) and Gillian said that she didn’t know, she hadn’t given her fictional character a job. Now I think some novels go into too much detail about each character, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination, so I don’t think we have to know every detail – but I think the author should know! Perhaps because Gillian’s past work has often involved adapting other people’s words for the stage she hasn’t gotten into the habit of creating her own characters in detail, she says she doesn’t work that way – but I think she should try it, the novel was weaker because some of the characters felt half formed.
Apart from following Peter’s sordid tale my other favourite part of the novel was the build up to the riot. It occurred during a boiling hot early summer and you can almost feel the heat coming off the pages as you read. Slovo skilfully captures a tense overheated atmosphere of something about to erupt. Unfortunately the scenes describing the actual riot didn’t live up to the early promise as they felt flat and unconvincing to me, I tried to picture what she was describing (considering I’ve never been in a riot of any kind!) but nothing realistic came into my mind – was this down to bad writing or my lack of imagination? Not sure.
I felt the novel could have scored an extra point if it had just had another thorough edit or two.