I’ve been putting a lot of books down, lately, sometimes not even getting beyond the fifteenth page. I used to grit teeth and roll my eyes to the end no matter what, but I’m now losing patience.
Cheers, then, to Polly Courtney for a great read in Feral Youth, about a fifteen year old black girl, Alesha, eking out an existence in a London estate ruled by gangs and harassed by the coppers (she calls them the boydem). It’s a miserable existence: a daily routine consisting of fronting it to gain respect. Respect is everything, because if you don’t have it, you’re going to get exploited and that’ll be the end of that.
The only thing that warms her and loosens that cold, tight knot in her belly is JJ and his dementia-suffering nan.
Courtney paints a harsh world where one wrong step spells disaster. Alesha runs some packets in an alien area for the Peckham Crew with which she’s affiliated. The receivers don’t take to her, steal the packet, threaten her with a gun, and leave her in dangerous debt to her own ‘crew.’ From that moment on her already miserable world collapses as she experiences one disaster after another.
Courtney writes the whole thing in first person, from Alesha’s point of view. She has you living in her head, willing her forward, realizing every stupid mistake she makes, but having the reader understand the context. As JJ drifts she looks for something, someone, to anchor her. Alesha’s so lonely, so defensive, she sometimes can’t think straight. Her mum is useless, effectively abandoning her, she has no clue about her dad. The authorities have taken JJ’s nan into care, rendering JJ and herself homeless. She can only see the past and right now.
Courtney does such a good job in subtly showing how the future doesn’t really exist beyond what Alesha’s going to eat next, how she’s going to get it, how she’ll get the money (p’s) to live. When Miss Merfield, an old teacher from the school which has since kicked her out, helps, Alesha can’t see past her middle-class aura. She likes Miss’ luxuries, but she feels nothing but mistrust from a class she feels despises the likes of her. This all sounds like a misery-fest, but there’s plenty of humour. The scene in Miss Merfield’s lover’s kitchen is worth the book’s price alone. Miss Merfield’s quest to help Alesha, even after the teenager has conned her out of money with a promise to find the teacher’s stolen ring, has you fearing for the story. Fearing that here’s a tale about a lower class girl rescued by her social superiors, thus pissing off any of us who grew up on a council estate. Thankfully, Courtney doesn’t let it play out like a modern Oliver Twist.
There’s no monster like Fagin, who for all his evil, still had enough charm to make you like him. The monsters in Feral Youth are monsters, full stop, enticing followers hanging round the gangsters and looking for scraps.
Courtney captures perfectly, through Alesha, what it’s like to scrape by, making bad choices because when you can’t see a future, you take pleasure where you can and bite your nails at the consequences later. As Alesha would say, “Rah.”
The book ends with the recent London riots, the result of bubbling anger which can hardly articulate itself, so is left to the right-wing press to stamp its interpretation on events. No matter Alesha’s motives, her stupidity, and righteous anger, she’s a fantastic force of nature to follow.
A great read.