Novels that display a command of a particular voice as their most distinct feature can often fail by the same token, feeling like mere ventriloquism. This is decidedly not the case with Guy Gunaratne’s brilliant and inventive debut In Our Mad and Furious City, which uses a chorus of distinct voices from within London’s “council estates” (public housing) to present a gritty and tragic snapshot of the city.
The novel is told entirely in the first person, rotating through the perspectives of five characters whose lives have all been touched by extremism. There’s a woman and her rap-loving son whose family was swept up in the violence of Northern Ireland’s Troubles; an older black man of Britain’s “Windrush” generation, during which workers from the Caribbean were encouraged to immigrate to Britain to rebuild after World War II but found themselves embroiled in strained race relations; his tough son; and the Pakistani son of a recently deceased imam, struggling with the radical teachings of the mosque’s new leader.
In the riotous 48 hours following a killing reminiscent of the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby, all five lives are drawn together as London flares up in a spasm of sectarian and nationalist violence–one that is not far from a possible reality.
Gunaratne, a Londoner born to Sri Lankan immigrants, has a keen appreciation for his inherited city, a mix of love and disillusionment. The book thrums with his characters’ appraisal of the city’s often painful attempts to square its past with its present. For them, London is a place where “constant, punishing memories are left to spill into one another.”
Gunaratne’s prose swells to a stylish, ground-level street symphony. The vernacular that defines the language of the inhabitants of the estate, shot through with ennet and nuttan and yuno and more colorful turns of phrase, is not quite as impenetrable as the slang invented by Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange, but nearly so. Although the slang is a barrier to entry at the start, the reader soon catches up–and as the book careens to its devastating conclusion, the linguistic flair reveals itself as entirely necessary. It is, Gunaratne proves to us, utterly inseparable from the people who use it to make sense of their lives, and the city where they must try to make a home.
Mancusi’s debut novel, A Philosophy of Ruin, will be published in June 2019.
This appears in the December 17, 2018 issue of TIME.