BlackAmber, £10.99, 294pp. £9.89 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Brenton Brown, By Alex Wheatle

From time to time, a new book arrives which catches its moment in an almost uncanny grip. Set in the middle of the last decade, the latest novel by South London writer Alex Wheatle has an all-too-obvious connection to this week's blazing headlines. At one point, a grieving teenager voices her scorn and fury at the mayhem unleashed by a junior gangster who has shot her boyfriend in error after a nightclub assassination struck the wrong target: "he's probably boasting to his crew right now... He's probably writing about it on his fucking MySpace page... What is wrong with these idiots? Don't they have parents who bring them up right? I bet he's got a pic of him on his site doing some bullshit macho pose. His bredrens are probably saying, yeah, you're a soldier. A fucking soldier! Is that all they live for? To be called a soldier by their wasteman crew?"

To buy this book online, click here.

That MySpace – rather than Facebook – allusion fixes the date. Brenton Brown, a sequel to Wheatle's much-admired debut Brixton Rock (1999), often slips back into a tormented past. But its main action unrolls from 2002 to 2005, through a period of comparative hope and calm.

Brixton Rock – with its echoes of Graham Greene in title, plot and mood - introduced the perennially out-of-place Brenton. Brought up in a rural children's home, a volatile outsider in Brixton, he grew into a young man ill-at-ease, in every way, in his own soul and his own skin. It also portrayed his sulphurous affair with half-sister Juliet, a dangerous liaison that tugs Brenton back into a swamp of bad memories where rage and self-pity mingle. Always alert to the tangled roots of despair and disorder, and never a one-note chronicler of "ethnic" London, Wheatle in his fiction echoes the question that Brenton's Oxford-educated social worker asks during the hero's youth in care: "Why it's so difficult for the working-class to progress".

Now, at the zenith of the new Labour era, Brenton holds down a job as a decorator in the gentrifying streets of a neighbourhood that no longer quite counts as (in the title of Wheatle's previous novel) The Dirty South. In designer bars, he gazes with a jaundiced eye at the WMCBs ("wannabe middle-class blacks") as their sip their cocktails: "at least they're trying to move up from having lunch at Kentucky". Juliet, meanwhile, has soared: a high-flying Lambeth Labour councillor, with ambitions to enter Parliament, she has married a suave (black) investment banker, Clayton. She lives with him and teenage Breanna: her daughter, but not his. In what now feels an especially poignant scene, Clayton – who claims his heart "is still in this community" - donates £50,000 of boom-time bankers' cash to a thriving youth club.

Yet shadows darken these Noughties vistas of upward mobility. Gang crime robs Breanna of ambitious and responsible Malakai, who "didn't want to be part of some fucked-up crew that traded in showing how bad they were". And the trashy allure of the "bad breed boys" still pulls some of a younger Brixton generation down.

Ever since London first sprawled into a metropolis with an insecure, disposable proletariat, it has hosted authors who investigate the city's lower depths and report on what they find. As far back as the 1590s, Elizabethan pamphleteers evoked the rogues and vagbagonds of filthy alleyways with the flesh-creeping relish of literary tourists among the underclass. This mean-street titillation continued through the vice-ridden Georgian lanes of Defoe and his peers. It reached its apogee in the numerous sub-Dickensian accounts of reeking slums and low-life villainy with which Victorian gentlemen of letters regaled a deliciously appalled readership. Images of a dangerous, criminalised rabble shocked and thrilled the bourgeois voyeur.

Later in the 19th century, those accursed residents of slumland slowly won the chance to speak for themselves. Pioneering researchers such as Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor (1861-62), tempered moralising with heroically detailed reportage. The capital became, as it remains, an "arrival city", crammed with new communities: first from rural England, then Wales and Ireland, then continental Europe, then the former Empire, then the whole world.

In time, the incomers found a literature of their own. Read Israel Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto (1892), set amid the Jewish community of Whitechapel, and you glimpse in prototype just that blend of genuinely well-informed testimony and often comical melodrama that brands a hundred later exercises in inner-city London writing. Insiders, brought up among the people they describe, could like the visitor-voyeurs fall into the traps of sensation or sentimentality – often conveyed through "authentic" slang.

Even a classic such as Sam Selvon's pioneering The Lonely Londoners (1956), about the Windrush generation of Caribbean migrants, does not entirely shake off this strain of folkloric anthropology. The pull of the genre has proved hard to resist. For all its generous intentions, a contemporary example such as Stephen Kelman's Man Booker-longlisted novel Pigeon English rather goes overboard with its fabricated sink-estate patois.

With its spasms of violence, meticulous period soundtrack, niftily-crafted "street" dialogue and expertly-dressed social types, Wheatle's Brixton fiction can't quite avoid the hallowed conventions of the urban shocker. He does not try to gratify sensation-seekers, however, and has for years run literature workshops with just the kind of hard-pressed inner-citizens who populate his books. What distinguishes Brenton Brown, as with Brixton Rock, is a rich layering of motive and emotion that lifts his protagonist far above the pundits' platitudes.

Above all, in Brenton's still-enraged mind, social and psychological obstacles to his contentment fuse. So he – and we - can hardly see the joins. That complex motivation makes Wheatle a true novelist, not a sociologist – along, of course, with the robust dialogue, streetwise humour and muscular, mischievous vernacular that grace this book. Brenton has learned to talk the Brixton talk, but did he walk the walk? Not according to old friend Floyd, who recalls "some kinda BBC, Surrey fuckery going on" with the care-home survivor's accent, and above all his rustic waddle: "That was some farmer, cow-nibbling, sore-bunion, straw-yamming country-bumpkin kinda walk, dread." For this you forgive, or accept, the late lurches into melodrama and the broad-brush cartoon satire of Juliet's creepy political habitat.

In his 2001 novel East of Acre Lane, Wheatle – a witness to those events – dramatised the Brixton riots of 1981. With its backdrop of fragile aspirations, and of a needling tension between a new black middle class and the brazen "soldiers" of the street, Brenton Brown does not directly address the destruction and self-destruction we saw again, in a more tragic key, this week.

Yet, via the mixed feelings and scrambled identity of its hero (who even in his hard-working artisan's life can seem to younger tearaways like "a proper Brixton badman"), it does perform fiction's proper role. It makes us see that strife – on the streets or in the mind – may have many fathers. Both actors and victims, free to change but pressured to repeat the patterns of the past, Brenton and his fellow-Brixtonians show that acts (however reckless) have multiple causes. But they also have "consequences" – of guilt, of hurt, of harm – that will "last a lifetime".

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links