Liccle Bit by Alex Wheatle - book review: Gritty family portrait that's not short on laughs

Wise as well as witty, understanding rather than blinkered, this novel is a joy to read.

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The Independent Culture

This first young-adult novel from an award-winning black British writer is a treat. Breathing new life into a genre currently obsessed with vampires, dystopian visions or mawkishly sentimental stories, this tale set in a contemporary high-rise estate is topical and also a triumph of language.

Lemar, the 14-year old anti-hero of the title and so-called because of his lack of inches, has to deal with domestic drama at home with an over-tired mother, an angry older sister and a mostly absent divorced father all capable of raising the decibel level at a moment's notice. But far worse is the involving gang warfare going on around him. A nice lad if not particularly bright, Bit is an easy target for those with his best interests last on their agenda.

So far and on the surface so grim, but this is to ignore the accompanying humour and verbal richness of Wheatle's writing. Lemar describes how his heart "Usain Bolted every time he sees the psychopathic local gang leader". When they eventually make contact "Something cold Voldermorted through every artery of my body". Venitia, the girl he silently adores, is for him so beautiful that "If the Pope saw her he'd have a ting for her".

The banter between him and his friends is also laugh-aloud funny while mercifully shorn of the four-letter words that might otherwise be expected from today's teenage world. When deep in his own thoughts, Lemar is accused of being as unnaturally quiet as "a female teacher's fart". Noisy family quarrelling is described as "Game of Throning". Dictionary compilers on the look-out for new expressions should find plenty to work with in these pages.

Holding Lemar's fragile grip on daily life at home together is his beloved Gran, still speaking in a Jamaican argot and expert at cooking rice and chicken curry. When she too is put at risk by events outside things turn dark indeed before a clever ending comes to the rescue. A sequel is planned for next spring, which can only be good news for teenage readers still looking for positives in their fiction.

For Lemar is basically an endearing character, anxious to do the right thing and loyal to family and friends. His school is staffed by teachers who work hard and are delighted when he wins a prestigious competition with his art-work. His parents and older sister fundamentally care for him and for each other, and the police visiting his flat to further their enquiries are shown doing their best in difficult circumstances.

Wise as well as witty, understanding rather than blinkered, this novel is a joy to read.

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