Guy Gunaratne has written a powerful and important novel, “In Our Mad and Furious City”, which takes place in contemporary London, or those parts of it where new immigrants, almost all people of color, have been marginalized into wretched tower block housing. Gunaratne focuses his novel around the lives of a number of young men, late teenagers, their interactions and friendships, their evolving survival techniques; we also read about their often single mothers and the almost maze-like environments in which these young men live. But “In Our Mad and Furious City” is far beyond being a victim novel, thankfully, as the characters are each allowed their own personal quirks and inner lives and, in some cases, hopes and dreams. A lot of the book is set on a concrete “football” field, at a crossing point in and amongst the towers in which these young men live. And each story is different: one of the reasons “Mad and Furious” is so important and so well written is the author’s ability to portray the very different characters who live in this part of London; we often learn how they got to London in the first place (they’re from all over, from the West Indies to Pakistan, from India to Bosnia and Ireland). A few are white.
The backstories of how these men and their families came to live in a London that is so brutal to them are some of the most fascinating reading in the novel. We have a man from the West Indian islands, who believes a better life exists for him in London; upon his arrival, he finds work within the ghetto he lives in, but he also gets caught up in the increasing racial hatreds of London, white “teddy” boys intent on scaring these new immigrants, roughing them up, making their lives untenable. In this narrative, though, the man goes back to his island, brings his girlfriend-now-wife with him, and they start a new life as best they can; their son is one of the most determined of the young men in the novel, who uses sports and the daily discipline required both to box and to run; he will eventually get out of the ghetto but at some cost to his own identity. This family refuses to live on hate and anger.
One of the subplots of this novel involves the lives of a Muslim family, the father of which is the local imam of the Mosque. His two sons become wrapped up in the racial hatred and violence of this most racist London; the role of the Mosque and of Muslim identity is fascinatingly rendered in the novel. (When the mosque burns down, it’s assumed that it was torched by white racists, but Gunarantne makes it much more complex than that, while proving how perceptions become reality, and how racial hatred gets out of control easily and misassumptions are easily made).
That most of the young men in this novel are gentle, mostly kind souls of guys trapped in a racist London, baffled and confused, makes the novel that much more effective. The clash between the hopes and ideals of the parents who bring their children to London and the hatred which awaits them only because they are poor and/or of color is brilliantly rendered. “In Our Mad and Furious City” is a very important and topical novel; it was also longlisted for The Booker Prize in 2018, as well. The novel will do much more to affirm the progressive stances on race as it personalizes the lives of young men, at just the point in their young lives where some will escape (a few) and others will be doomed.