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Blistering London gangsta story thrills, but fails to convince

Just announced as Waterstone’s Older Fiction category winner 2017, Orangeboy is a maximum impact read. It tells the story of 16-year-old Marlon, who gets sucked into a teen gang vortex of drugs, violence, and ultimately, a dicing with death. Is he strong enough to stand firm against the gangstas who would crush him and those he loves?

Orangeboy is breathlessly fast paced. We meet naive, good-hearted Marlon, and within the opening chapter, he has taken his first ever Ecstasy pill, only for it’s glittering euphoria to be shattered by a tragedy. He is now inexorably drawn into a murky underworld, where kids carry knives, and think nothing of ‘shanking’ someone. Later scenes where he himself considers carrying a knife for protection, are flinch inducing. He opens his mum’s kitchen drawer, feels the weight of the blade, cold in his palm, the knife, like ‘a silver whisper, calling to him’

The sense of place is strong, London through teen eyes. The action pings back and forth across the river, between Hackney and Brixton, and the territorial menace is palpable. As is the anger of the young male characters, testosterone and chaotic home lives combining to make fizzing teenage time bombs.

Some of us hold the anger down. And in some of us it bursts out in all the wrong places….

Despite it’s impressive strengths, I had doubts about Orangeboy’s plausibility. Marlon makes a series of inflammatory decisions that seemed inexplicable to me. I can’t decide whether this was authorial weakness or a reflection of how the life experiences of some young men lead them to feel that they have very few real choices.

Usefully, the afterword contains points for discussion, on subjects such as attitudes to authority, and life prospects in certain communities.

This was such a thought-provoking read. I’d be interested to know whether other readers struggled with its plausibility.

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