(Chatto & Windus, £12.99)
Book review: 'Boxer Handsome' by Anna Whitwham
This promising debut novel about boxing shows both its violence and its value
Friday 10 January 2014
Boxer Handsome is Anna Whitwham’s first novel and was inspired by her grandfather, John Poppy, a young featherweight boxer at the Crown & Manor Boys Club in Hoxton. This familial connection gives this exciting debut an authenticity, which allied to a confident writing style, suggests Whitwham has a promising future ahead of her.
The story opens with Bobby fighting childhood friend Connor over a girl. Both amateur boxers in the same boxing club in East London, they are due to fight each other in the ring in a divisional competition in a week’s time, but this flurry of fists takes place by the canal, bare-knuckled and brutal. Bobby wins but can’t resist a victorious act of brutality that drives subsequent events.
Whitwham acknowledges the value of boxing in society – giving wayward kids a focus, trainers acting as father figures to young men – through Derek, who runs the Clapton Bow Boys Club and keeps an eye out for Bobby and his other charges.
But she doesn’t shy away from its brutal side and the thin line that separates regulated fighting in the ring from unfettered violence outside it. Casualties of this world lay strewn throughout the world Whitwham creates. Joe, Bobby’s father, was once a decent boxer himself, but is now a sad alcoholic, a broken shell of a man with none of the respect that his fists once commanded. Bobby’s mother, a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of Joe, sees history repeating itself as her son follows in his dad’s footsteps, a slave to the code of honour that this macho world demands. There’s something of Shakespeare’s emotionally stunted warrior, Coriolanus, in Bobby. When he meets a local girl, Chloe, he suddenly glimpses an alternative to the world he has inhabited since birth. The tragedy is that he lacks the emotional skills to seize this chance.
Whitwham’s writing is as sharp as a one-two combination, short punchy sentences that capture effectively the brooding atmosphere of the East End, the threat of violence at every turn and the savagery of fighting. “Then [he] cracked the bridge of his nose wide open. Skin split. Blood spat. Connor stumbled about headless.”
But the book is tender, too, a change of pace that deepens the emotional resonance of the characters. Bobby is uncharacteristically unsure of himself when he first takes Chloe on a date: “She had a grip on him, a spell that held him in awkward moments he couldn’t get out of.” This is a promising debut, and it will be interesting to see how Whitwham handles subject matter in subsequent novels that is more distant from her own experience.
Order at the discounted price of£10.99 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food