Before the Fire by Sarah Butler, book review: In with the ‘innit’ crowd

How one kid from one estate with one history might end up caught in the madness and violence and looting and rioting that happened in August 2011

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The Independent Culture

Reviews of this book will do it, and young people, a huge disservice by assuming that it’s a state of the nation novel about all 13- to 19-year-olds, getting into the heads of those angry feral kids who did some rioting and looting in 2011 because they were disengaged from the political system.

It’s not. It’s about one single teenager and his disengagement from society.

And that’s its strength.

This is a novel about Stick (or Kieran to his mum) and about burning anger and how that can manifest itself. It’s about violence and depression and anger internalised and then realised in a fit of fury and directionlessness. It’s about going nowhere fast.

In June 2011, Stick and his best friend Mac are preparing to celebrate turning 18 by packing up a shitty second-hand car and driving to Malaga to live the high life of sun, sex and sangria. The night before they leave, Mac is stabbed to death in a seemingly random attack. Stick tries to come to terms with Mac’s death but when external forces – his parental units, the justice system, friends – let him down, he turns to numbing himself with weed, booze and running around at night. Then he meets J, an equally damaged teenager, who has long since decided that dreams of escape from their estate in Manchester are futile. As they crash towards August, and violence and rioting in London spreading across the country, Stick and J have to confront their rage and grief and decide how best to channel it.

Sarah Butler’s novel is a slow burn of a book. Her ear for teenage dialogue, neuroses, tiny details about mannerisms, dress, opinions, are well-researched and feel authentic. The descent into rage and anger is well-paced and Butler manages to keep the external threats to Stick’s resolve throbbing away. The book revels in the diversity and mystery of young people. It never tries to imitate the “innit”-ness of other authors who fling out slang as a substitute for character development. Instead, Butler’s prose is microscopic, delicate and honest.

The book is good at showing how one kid from one estate with one history might end up caught in the madness and violence and looting and rioting that happened in August 2011. Instead of trying to condone or condemn all young people, Butler is more interested in telling a human story about grief and how that can manifest itself in unflinching anger, no matter our age.

Meatspace, by Nikesh Shukla, is published by The Friday Project

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