Like a doting parent, Alex Wheatle has always liked to keep tabs on the characters from his novels after the end of their personal narrative, often giving them walk-on parts in books other their own. This time, though, he goes back to the source, bringing us up to date on Brenton Brown, the troubled mixed-race Londoner from his 1999 debut, Brixton Rock.
Then he was a rough 16-year-old, just out of care, and finding it hard not to get caught up in street violence. Now, in 2002, he is seemingly settled in life, no longer the “stepping volcano” of barely controlled anger, and making a good living as a builder in the newly gentrified pockets of south London, though the first line of the book tells you not everything’s hunky dory: “The sex was good, Brenton thought, but it failed to match the intensity of making love with his half-sister.”
That’s Juliet, with whom he got entangled in the first book, and he is still haunted by her now, not to mention obsessed with the thought that his teenage ‘niece’, Breanna, will never know he is in fact not her uncle, but her father.
The plot of Brenton Brown is simple enough – the breakdown of Brenton’s relationship with his current girlfriend, Lesley, his attempts to bond with Breanna and somehow get over his lust for Juliet, while refraining from punching out the lights of her husband, the sappy, Alexander O’Neal-listening Carlton. (Wheatle makes sure to give us a running playlist of the old school reggae that Brenton has on in his car and apartment: none of the Dizzee Rascal that the kids would have been playing back then, for sure.)
Not a vast amount happens, but what Wheatle gives us straight is the texture of life in London at that time, and in that class: growing up, getting by – Juliet is a Labour councillor, with thoughts of running for MP – but not yet out of reach of the ugly chaos of gang violence, when it chooses to crash into your world. And certainly not free of the demons that push people so close to security to throw it all away. “We can’t choose who we love,” Brenton’s friend Floyd tells him, near the beginning of the book, and he’s there at the end, like a Greek chorus, to pass judgment on what has come between.
Jonathan Gibbs blogs at http://tinycamels.wordpress.com/.