Capturing the blend of magic and melancholy curiously specific to English seaside towns, Little Boxes by Cecilia Knapp takes us to a Brighton the local tourist board never reveals. During the course of a stifling and turbulent summer, we follow four twenty-something friends as their lives buckle after the death of an elderly man, beloved to them all. An evocation of council estate life in all its colours and ‘ordinary’ young people on the cusp of great change, this debut novel of secrets and survival is an engrossing read.
A poet who’s creating a buzz, as well as a former Young People’s Laureate for London, Knapp brings an energy and lyricism to her portrayal of Leah, Jay, Matthew and Nathan, four friends bound by their shared childhood in a local tower block. Their respective family flats are the ‘little boxes’ of the title, both containing and restraining their lives.
If these days their camaraderie sometimes feels like little more than acquired habit, the reliable, quiet presence of Matthew’s grandfather, Ron, provides a common thread. Pottering around in his favourite corduroy trousers, dispensing favours and wise counsel, he is as much a fixture of the estate as the mouth-watering smell of frying chips on the breeze.
Until the day of his sudden demise, foreshadowed by the view from the tower block windows of two police officers approaching the flats, ‘holding their hats to their chests.’ In the predictably grim aftermath, the four friends are forced to confront the secrets of Ron’s past, his tragic death becoming a catalyst for change in their own damaged and stagnating lives.
Told from each of their perspectives in turn, the characterisation is strong. There’s Jay, the alpha of the group, angry and emotionally abusive to longtime girlfriend, Leah, who’s consequently shrinking, ‘losing small pieces of herself everyday.’ Matthew’s life is on pause until he embraces his sexual identity, and then there’s Nathan, who lacking obvious conflict, grapples instead with lovelorn inertia.
Knapp illuminates a background of absent fathers, lack of opportunity, and the misery that can be passed down through families. And yet, this vivid novel is far from depressing, the grit balanced by some wonderful observations on the glory days of youth, when life was easy and ‘the local kebab shop sold stolen fags under the counter.’
What makes Little Boxes sing for me is its evocation of Brighton, borne of the author’s own experience of growing up there. As the city preens itself for summer, senses are awakened by the ‘smell of something grilling. Gulls. Dogs. Buttery sunshine.’
In pointed contrast, the tourist’s Brighton of pastel hues, arty types and indie shops, sits alongside Knapp’s seedier love-hate version, a hotspot of homelessness and rendezvous in the back of older men’s cars.
‘The whole place reeks of bins and the sting of the sea.’
The ease of youth has become a memory, adulthood and their hometown have ensnared all four. It will take Ron’s death to rouse them from their catatonia.
A great first novel from an exciting new voice in fiction.
Little Boxes by Cecilia Knapp is published by The Borough Press, 352 pages.