Monday, June 7, 2010

Forest Gate by Peter Akinti - 224 pgs


Book CoverOne morning during her early morning class, young Meina is unexpectedly removed and brought to speak with two policemen who inform her that her brother Ashvin is dead. Ashvin and his best friend James had recently put a suicide pact into motion, both boys hanging themselves from two opposite tower roofs. It is only Ashvin who succeeds in ending his life, leaving James behind full of feelings of guilt and irreparable despair. When Meina discovers that the two boys acted in conjunction, she seeks James out to discover Ashvin's motives. The two soon find themselves in a tentative relationship, their sadness giving way to love. But James and Meina have outside conflicts that threaten their new peace. James is the youngest brother of five, and all of his siblings are drug-runners and arms dealers and his mother is addicted to crack. Meina has escaped the war in Somalia after the brutal murder of her parents and is now at the mercy of a benefactor whose motives may not be pure. As Meina and James struggle to cope with the violence and casual cruelties of their London tenement existence, they begin to discover that life's unexpected reversals have led to more than their new relationship and they must find a way to leave their oppressive and stale environment behind to move on to a more fruitful future. In this raw and haunting debut, author Peter Akinti spins a tale of two lives caught in the midst of a terrible violence and the shattered dreams it inflicts upon its innocent bystanders.

It is rare for me to come across a book like this. This story is very gritty and filled with the frustration and sadness of people inhabiting a dim and violence-charged world. Akinti doesn't flinch at all in his tale and the anger and frustration burst off the page and burn into the reader's psyche like fire. There are no missteps in this tale, no fumbling in emotion or intention, and often when I was reading, I was caught up in extreme feelings of anger. The disillusionment of the characters was palpable and it seemed that no matter what they did or said, they were destined to be misunderstood and marginalized. It was an extremely powerful book and one that made me reach into the deep recesses if my mind to formulate questions that I had previously given little to no thought to.

The book begin with the death and attempted suicide of the two boys, and from there, the action focuses on the dual and shifting narrative of James and Meina. Both the main characters have reasons to be broken and despondent; both are filled with indignation at their circumstances. But there is not only the anger of their shared suffering on the page, there is also a sense of their fleeting dreams and unrealized potential and the desperate wrestling of their hope for the future. As the narrative winds on, I came to realize that these two would have to go to extraordinary lengths to find even a modicum of happiness for themselves. To pull out of this desperate tailspin, they would have to be given the chance to start anew when everything and everyone was holding them back. Their situation was indeed grim, and the answers to their problems involved their traveling down paths filled with pain and recrimination. There were no easy answers for these two and it was a long uphill struggle for both of them.

The book was filled with a scathing sense of social commentary. Questions about identity, self worth and the age old repercussions of violence were deftly intertwined into the narrative, with both Meina and James acting as mouthpieces to these shared conflicts. James speaks elegantly and at length about the stereotyping of black males and the ways that people try to defy these stereotypes in themselves and their community, only to find that they are beginning to embody everything that they are fighting against. Meina speaks about the extreme liberties that have been taken of her body and mind, the confusion of war and the loss of self-respect and self-value. Together they have a lot to say, and it is within these messages that the book seeks to be the fulcrum of change. These messages are often biting and brutal, the lessons they impart hard-won. I thought that there was a strange beauty in these messages. The dark meanderings of Akinti's soul took on a life and force that resonated in me profoundly and struck me deeply. The fear that was etched into these characters was palpable and their expression of it not only sincere but frightening.

Another thing I liked about this book was the earnestness of the dialogue. Though most of it was caustic, it had a unique ability to also be reflective and to feel humble. There were small snippets of dialogue that startled with their implications and penetration, and I felt that Akinti definitely succeeded in making his characters' voices believable and authentic in a way that not many books of this caliber do. The questions that the characters asked of each other and themselves were not only searching of themselves but of the wider community surrounding them.

At the end of the book Akinti also provides an essay reflecting his early years in London. This essay reveals that his life was plagued by many of the questions that his characters faced, and I saw a startling similarity between Akinti and his character James. I thought that the essay was a brilliant companion to the story, as it really struck the roots of the societal damage that is inflicted on living breathing human beings.

Though this book was very dark, it excelled in getting its messages across and driving home the realities of violence, subjugation and racism. It was one hell of a powerhouse in terms of plot, character and in the driving home of its messages, and I highly recommend it as a read that crosses genres. It is certainly a book that will make you think, and though the majority of the plot is mired in sadness, there does come a point where things begin to move towards the realm of hope and possibility. Akiniti is a brilliant author, and I hope to read more of his work when it becomes available to me. Don't pass this book up. Though it is far from gentle, it has the ability to change you in some very powerful ways.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

11 comments:

Amy said...

It sounds like this book is really great. Akinti doesn't seem scared at all to tackle some big issues, and the essay at the end does sound like a great addition. I've added this to my wishlist, and I hope I can find it!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I almost started this yesterday but I have been kind of reluctant because of the dark themes! It does sound good, though!

Jenny said...

This definitely sounds very powerful. They mentioned this book briefly at the hot book club books panel at BEA!

Suko said...

Forest Gate sounds like a very affecting story. Wonderful, in-depth review.

bermudaonion said...

I like books that make me think, but this one might be a little too dark for me right now. Excellent review!

Diane said...

Heather, I think I would like this book. Dark is okay as long as it leaves me with something to think about.

Another terrific review; thanks so much.

Lisa said...

This sounds really powerful. I'm almost afraid to pull up your blog--every time I do, I find another book to add to the wishlist!

Jenny said...

I used to have very elaborate, realistic nightmares where I would be sitting in class and someone would get me out of class to tell me one of my sisters had died. I think this book would hit a nerve with me!

Literary Feline said...

This sounds like quite a complex novel, with many different layers--and very powerful. Another one that definitely is going on my wish list. Thanks for your insightful review, Heather.

Nymeth said...

I love what you said about the caustic but humble tone. It reminds me of my reaction to Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, which I finished just a few days ago, and which is FAR from gentle but ultimately very compassionate. I wish I could steal lines from your review to use in mine ;)

Melissa M said...

This one sounds a bit deep and dark for me right now. I find that light books are still the best with my limited reading time. And as someone who will pick up a book for the cover alone, I don't like this cover at all!

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