Alex Wheatle’s second novel, from 2001, is a vivid, brooding depiction of Brixton in early 1981 in the weeks leading up to the riots.
The posse at the heart of this novel are a bunch of unemployed black youths just trying to get by and doing the things teens do. Mainly we follow Biscuit, as he hustles a little weed, frets about his sister, tries to get with his girl Carol and takes in the music and sights and smells of the ghetto.
Although there is a growing sense of imminent tragedy as East of Acre Lane opens out, this is a warm funny novel. Wheatle uses authentic dialogue that moves the action rapidly with a natural rhythm.
“Lincoln, go tell dat damn Robson fe stop jumping ‘pin de balloons den or I will jump ‘pon ‘im.”
That’s the sort of writing I often hate, it can be clichéd or worse a patronising gimmick, a lazy characterisation device, and it can be hard to read. Wheatle certainly throws in plenty of street vocabulary that isn’t immediately obvious (“rarted”?) but his flow carries it and the reader quickly learns to parse it.
Obviously racial issues run deep here, but there is equally a strong sense that Wheatle is documenting a general poor, unemployed, neglected underclass. Biscuit’s white Irish neighbour Frank is a prime example, but scenes where Carol and her friends discuss boyfriends could be from Alan Warner’s smalltown Scotland in The Sopranos.
Biscuit is central here, a kind-hearted, decent young man hustling for petty cash, but his friends play their part in this ensemble. Occasional lapses where authorial voice seems to observe things in a way the young, uneducated youth is unlikely to, are quickly overcome by the strengths of this novel.
I know at least one minor character here, Brenton, is central in a couple of other books, but the well-travelled, eccentric rasta mentor Jah Nelson deserves more chapters, and I think every reader will want to know how Biscuit gets on. East of Acre Lane is the first Alex Wheatle novel I’ve read, it won’t be the last.
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