When the riots kicked off in London in the summer of 2011, it was the voice of a disaffected youth who faced little in the way of prospects, money, jobs or housing that created the storm that erupted across the capital, and soon spread to other major cities around the country. Just two years later comes Polly Courtney’s new novel, Feral Youth, a fictional account of one 15 year-old girl and her experience of London teen gang culture that came to a head with those riots.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Alesha, a recently expelled teen who spends her time ‘cotching’ with her best friend JJ’s nan, whilst living a life in the roughest spots of South London trying to make ends meet thieving watches. Along the way she is reacquainted with her seemingly perfect teacher Miss Merfield, who is intent on turning around Alesha’s life from a world of drug deliveries, fights and escaping the fedz and turning her onto job opportunities, honest working and piano tuition.
It’s certainly an interesting take on the London riots, and how those disillusioned youngsters turned to violence on a huge scale. Thankfully, you really do feel for Alesha and her situation along the way. She’s a good kid in the middle of a terribly dangerous underground world, and her actions are largely driven by anger management issues and a feeling that she has been abandoned by just about everyone except JJ. It would have been all too easy for Alesha to be just another tough nut gangsta who didn’t really think too much, just absorbed herself in mindless violence, but this isn’t the case.
Indeed, Alesha thinks much more than she says, and what helps is the first person, stream of consciousness style of prose, including teen grammar structure (‘feels like I ain’t hardly been asleep’) and a plethora of gang culture lingo that is so vast the book requires a handy glossary of terms in the beginning you can constantly refer back to. There’s no denying it isn’t authentic, and it very much comes across.
Courtney really gets into the mind of someone who thinks too much about how much she has been screwed over by society and giving up too easily when working towards an honest lifestyle becomes tough. It’s a message that should resonate with many young people, and this universal theme is the most compelling part of this story.
There are no unnecessary characters, or distracting sub-plots, it’s all very black and white. This is Alesha’s story, and that really is all you need when her experiences are so visceral. The story is one of the finest examples of a sustained single storyline I have read, and is so grounded in reality you can’t help but begin to think of Alesha as a real person out there. It’s a pretty intense read, and is certainly not a book seeped in romance and adventure. But what it is, is a brilliantly evocative piece of fiction that sheds a light on the teenage thoughts of today against a backdrop of resentment.