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The Dirty South
Book Review by Gaverne Bennett, June 2008
Alex Wheatle, Serpent's Tail, £9.99
Rare is the novel that can take known statistics - for example, 70 percent of African Caribbean boys are likely to leave school with less than five GCSEs - and show how these numbers are really played out in the lives of young black teenagers. Rarer still is the novel that can capture the lives of three generations by crystallising them through the life, thoughts, and feelings of their youngest generation.
In The Dirty South, Alex Wheatle manages to do all of this in a comparatively short 224 pages. The book starts with Dennis Huggins in prison and then takes us step by step through the processes that put him there.
We see Dennis at school, with his friend Noel, sailing from a life of petty theft to selling drugs in school to the fraught life of a "shotta" or drugs dealer. We follow Dennis and his friends as they realise that in spite of all the changes in the last 20 years the "Dirty South", as Brixton is affectionately called, still offers little in the way of opportunity for black working class boys. As Wheatle himself comments, the school system assumes "'cos I am black... I didn't think I had an academic brain".
We watch Dennis as he navigates his relationships between his legal secretary mother and disabled librarian father and his first faltering steps towards love. However, we do more than watch - we see all of this through Dennis's eyes, feel through his feelings and, most importantly, we learn to analyse the world through his thought processes, his language.
However, the novel clearly shows that there is no inevitability about what happens to Dennis. When Dennis comes close to sleeping with a former schoolmate's girlfriend a chain of events unleashes terrifying violence, as his former schoolmate seeks revenge with the backing of his newly minted so-called Muslim gang. It is here we learn the dark truth his father has hidden from Dennis.
The real power of this novel is that we get to see British society through the eyes of a black teenager and the experience of the deterioration of everyday life for many working class people since the mid-1970s. We also see the rise of a new generation of teenagers who have, in the words of the poet Milton, "the courage never to submit or yield".
This book gives the reader a head start. It introduces you to the fighters of the future: characters, not caricatures, who like most of us, try to make sense, and where possible, resist a world that is both hostile and bewildering in turn.
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