Dissing the brothers

Cathy Newman learns the fate of a black figurehead; Some Kind Of Black by Diran Adebayo, Virago, pounds 9.99

At the beginning of Some Kind of Black, Dele and his friend Concrete- so named because of his talent for head-butting - play a game of blackjack. Having not been able to agree on the rules of the game, the two decide to play by the Queensberry rules in north London and by Concrete's ("Concrete madness") in the south. In the course of the game, Dele discovers that Concrete has "slipped in some new piece of slyness", symbolic of the divisions in the black community. It's these divisions which are explored in this accomplished first novel, winner of the Saga prize for unpublished black British authors. Diran Adebayo draws on his experiences as a black Oxford graduate, born and bred in London but of Nigerian descent. Dele, Adebayo's fictional alter ego, indulges in a summer of sex, smokes and substances of an increasingly potent order - first in Oxford and then in London.

Dele "clocks" and "scopes" the female populations of Oxford and Brixton, working his way through Helena (white and horsey), Cheryl ("his side of coffee-coloured"), and Andria, a white girl with a Jamaican accent who deals in "GBH" and animal tranquillisers. But another woman, Dele's sister Dapo, is the catalyst for the novel's main action. Suffering from sickle cell anaemia, Dapo collapses in police custody, and sinks into a coma.

Dapo's fate propels Dele into the uneasy role of black figurehead, presiding over a feuding community. Adebayo has said that, now the "Afro- centric phase" is past, there is a need for self-critique. So Dele exposes the differences between blacks and the sometimes fatal consequences of black Londoners' "bogus brothery".

By dissing his contemporaries Dele finds himself a social and cultural pariah, equally ill at ease at university, when tittering students force him to take part in a slave auction, and in London, where, at a rally protesting at police brutality, Dele "got lost in a great sight of blackness." Although at first Dele plays up to a white stereotype of black culture - allowing whites to "indulge their romance of the real nigga" - he eventually dismisses this as play-acting. In an epiphanic moment, he dubs himself the titular "some kind of black", a phrase suggesting shame at not living up to black expectations, and confusion about his identity.

Some Kind of Black is an individual and thought-provoking debut, but it does have its longeurs. Although touted as a coming-of-age novel, along the lines of Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia, it fails to trace Dele's growing stature or understanding, despite his "troublesome summer", and we are left at the end of the novel with the problems confronted by the card-players at the beginning. But if at times the book resembles a lecture, it is accompanied by some interesting slides: vignettes of London and Oxford life played out on Holywell Street, Broad Street, Effra Road and Tulse Hill.

Some Kind of Black breaks out of the generic ghetto implied in the words "black writing". Just as Dele resists Helena's inclination to "respond to him on the level of pity or sympathy, the way contrary black critics said that white people got off on Toni Morrison books", Adebayo's novel challenges his readers - both black and white - not to "get off" on his writing, but to think about the issues it raises.

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