Anna Whitwham’s debut novel doesn’t pull its punches. It opens with a fight on a canal path between two amateur boxers scrapping over a girl, and one ends up bottling the other. So much for the Corinthian spirit – this is more like potato spirit in a jam jar.
The author says that her grandfather, a featherweight at the Crown and Manor gym in London’s East End, was the inspiration for her novel. The setting is the same, but this is a tale of today’s broken nosed Britain, although the gym that the “handsome boxer” Bobby attends is a throwback, acting as a refuge from the mean streets as it has done for borderline criminal pugilists down the years. Bobby even manages to fall in love with a woman there, which is perhaps more of an achievement than his feats in the ring, given the all-male environment.
The narrative is shaped around a proper bout between Bobby and his towpath adversary, Connor, from an Irish traveller community. Yet the ringcraft is very much subsidiary to the EastEndersstyle soap opera going on outside the ropes. It’s unlikely that Bobby would tuck into a buffet of pork pies and sausage rolls on the night before the fight – and afterwards take his new girl upstairs for some gentle sparring between the sheets. The one just wouldn’t happen; the other really shouldn’t, as all fighters are told. Given that the rest of the sex is of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am variety, that might have been more appropriate.
So what is this book about exactly? Most obviously it is about feuding families. In the blurb, Bobby’s father Joe, also a boxer in his haymaker day, is described as Irish, but that is incorrect; he is proud of his English heritage – “This wasn’t their home. It was Joe’s. English born and bred. Salad cream and a boiled egg for breakfast. Never a penny yet always a pint” – and the rift is with Connor’s Irish “gypsy” entourage.
It makes for an unpleasant milieu, if a rather hackneyed one, and though literature should never flinch from portraying society’s ugly side, you do wonder what is achieved by this double-handed and rather two-dimensional characterisation and plot. Even those who get their kicks from a bit of cultural antagonism might hanker after something a bit more sophisticated. (“Bit” is used to excess – even if it’s the lazy way that people speak, that doesn’t mean the author has to keep resorting to it.)
And then, after all the casual prejudice, comes another expression of violence which is even more repugnant but which, bizarrely, seems to reach out for some kind of acceptance at the end.
There’s no need to spoil the story and say what it is, because this book is well written and the author will be worth watching. But rather like the Britain which Whitwham has chosen to portray, you have to worry about the future, if this is a genuine contender.