A splintered, polyvocal generational saga about people who don’t have it in them for extremism, even when extremism beckons on all sides ... This careful judgment seems to exist at all levels of Gunaratne’s debut. The author has a gift for sentiment without the refuse of sentimentality. Characters are made sympathetic in the space of a line ... The subtle hierarchies of racism are probed with nuance ... Description is always vivid ... Still, the writing can, at times, threaten to turn into something more suited to spoken-word, at odds with flowing prose...Luckily this turn never comes to pass. The prose remains alive, alert and subtly integrated, with various accents and non-standard Englishes raising themselves up to the same very high literary watermark ... Gunaratne is no doubt on his way. What you are left with – always a treat though not by any stretch as essential to all writing as some would have you believe – is a prose that benefits from being read aloud. But more so, a prose that just plain deserves to be read.
Indeed, much of the novel’s narrative engagement comes more from the unfolding revelations about the characters’ back stories than from their current predicaments or occasional hopes for the future. For all its energetic storytelling and (frequent) crosscutting, the novel feels curiously static; we are told at the beginning that the mosque will burn and the crowds gather, and after 200 pages of foreshadowing this duly takes place. It feels as though Gunaratne wanted to sweep his readers up in a 'mad and furious' rush of drama (and that semi-tautology in the novel’s title gives an indication of the elaborate prose he sometimes employs in pursuit of this drama), when in fact his strengths are in the quieter details—of personal stories, nuanced characterizations and especially in his multivocal breadth of register.
And it’s for those details that this book should be read. Gunaratne has a gift for inhabiting the lives of his characters, and has used that gift here to give voice to Londoners who are not often seen in contemporary fiction, and who will recognize themselves in this very fine novel—wearing the same trainers, speaking the same road slang, rolling out of the same school gates.
There’s plenty of London slang, to be sure, but it’s all garnish; the real sounds and deeper rhythms of the novel aren’t snatched from the streets but from literature. This book was incubated in a library ... But Gunaratne is a more passionate reader than he is writer. His novel is weirdly somnolent given how portentously it primes us for danger, for the burning of mosques and blood in the streets. On my first reading, I was not sure how this happened; had I missed something? Was I reading too quickly, too callously? ... Although interested in the clashing voices of London, of homegrown Grime music, the book itself is as tidy and contrived as a suburb. The characters speak their subtexts and announce their motivations. The rowdiness of the city is conveyed in summary, in blunt statements... and only rarely staged or subverted. Nor does the carousel of alternating viewpoints serve any real purpose. We see the same scene from different perspectives, but all reinforcing a single story. For all their 'fury,' the young men of the novel feel so thinly drawn and so stubbornly on message that they remain devices; every one of their thoughts and observations goes to advance the machinery of the plot.
A tinderbox of a novel. It asks what constitutes a community, knowing all the while how fragile communities are and how febrile they can feel ... a tense read about young men with foreclosed futures, the dread of violence and the sense of alienation they feel, written from the inside ... [Gunaratne] can delineate the particulars of a place while making it seem like a neighbourhood you might know, if only seen in passing ... Gunaratne keeps us resolutely in his characters’ idiom. It makes his prose choppy, sometimes pounding with a kind of systolic-diastolic pressure ... The book captures a feeling of foreboding, the sense of a future that is uncertain and volatile.
Even as this book turns tragic, it remains utterly alive, even joyous, in its newfound language ... An ordinary writer can, in truth, sometimes camouflage his banality in colloquial color: pure voice can do a fair amount of the novelist’s work. And In Our Mad and Furious City does begin shakily, in fact, but for the opposite reason. A prologue, written in the grand style of a chorus, leaves the streets for Parnassus ... every page, by dint of sheer linguistic exuberance, carries its own adventure ... Gunaratne even uses standard or literary language in exciting ways. His verbs, in particular, spring with energy ... But the choral form of the novel imperfectly serves that novelistic project [of confronting different views of extremism] ... If the contents of the story are under tremendous pressure, so are the book’s political themes. This is supposed to be a mad and furious book about a mad and furious city, and I suspect that Gunaratne wants his writing to borrow some of the freedoms of song lyrics and engaged journalism—to deliver political commentary, ardent instruction, and harsh intervention, to praise and to rage. But I also want to hear the characters sing the song of themselves. Gunaratne’s powers of observation are so acute and extractive that he can trust his material to generate its own human significance.
Explosive ... begins with palpable tension and urgency, a tone reminiscent of early Bret Easton Ellis. The focus on racial bigotry is markedly like that of Kenneth Steven’s 2020, but Gunaratne’s vision is much broader, encompassing the continuing reverberations of British colonialism, ideas of community and identity, and the everyday struggles of his adolescent protagonists. While many will need help decoding the constant slang, Gunaratne’s polyvocal tale, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, etches a rich picture of contemporary London and the recurring, historically rooted racial tensions that dominate it.
Uses a chorus of distinct voices from within London’s 'council estates' (public housing) to present a gritty and tragic snapshot of the city ... 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.
[In Our Mad and Furious City is] an introduction to a voice so fiery it burns to the touch. This is not to say Mad and Furious always works ... It’s obvious Gunaratne knows these boys well, eschewing coming-of-age clichés in an effort to thoroughly, authentically detail their lives and pain. His rendering, violent and pointed as it may be, brims with empathy. There’s also a sort of experimental ambition here ... The novel periodically expands, admirably if unevenly, into the hearts and minds of Ardan’s mother, Caroline, and Selvon’s father, Nelson.
Written in the working-class dialect of its protagonists, the novel arrives at a piecemeal portrait of contemporary London that manages to be both Gunaratne’s savvy rejoinder to nationalist politics and a Faulkner-esque feat of ventriloquism in its own right.