The riots that raged through the UK earlier this year and the more recent anti-capitalism demonstration at St. Paul's Cathedral have revealed the prescience of Gavin James Bower's second novel, Made in Britain, injecting the book's marketing campaign with a degree of focus it might otherwise have lacked. But this does not detract from Bowers' achievement, for Made in Britain provides a subtle yet powerful insight into the type of youngsters society normally marginalises.
The book charts the progress of its three major protagonists - Russell, son of an alcoholic mother, a fey, artistic type and victim of bullying; Charlie, a bruiser of uncertain sexuality who is coerced into selling drugs for the local dealer; and Hayley, a schoolgirl who lands herself in trouble with a predatory teacher. The sense of constricting deprivation in this 'Every Town,' where "half of the houses . . . are boarded up . . . and the only shop isn't even a shop; it's a Co-op Funeral Care" is palpable. Little wonder, then, that its inhabitants are so keen to escape through drink and drugs, which they do, in varying degrees, for much of the book: "Jenny's passed out on my lap, a bottle of White Lightening in her cold pale hand." Cannabis and MDMA co-star throughout, and there is a shocking description of a crack house midway through. The message is clear: here is a town whose industrial heart has been ripped out, leaving those trapped there with little choice but to self-medicate.
Some Bower fans - of whom there are an increasing number, many of them female, given that he is perhaps the UK's most aesthetically appealing former-model-turned-literary-novelist - may be surprised by the book's gritty subject matter and milieu, given that his first, Dazed and Aroused, was set in the glamorous world of fashion. Ostensibly, it's true, they couldn't be more different, but on closer examination, they share similar thematic preoccupations. Made in Britain is much more plot-driven than its predecessor: in fact, the deftness of its storytelling is one of the great pleasures it offers the reader.
As before, Bower's prose is spare and workmanlike throughout; his characters affecting. But what both books really have in common is the manner in which they critique the deadening effects of late capitalism on the individual, albeit in very different sections of society. In Every Town, Charlie must suppress his sexual curiosity and Hayley must conform to the promiscuous behaviours of her classmates to fit in, while Russell's only hope is to escape entirely. That the personal and the political are intimately connected is in no doubt - as Haley observes "I saw a sign next to a bit of land behind Asda. It said Investing in Your Town but the poster was ripped ad peeling off, and it didn't look like owt was happening or even about to really."
George Eliot famously once said that fiction should be about extending our sympathies towards those we might otherwise not meet or understand. The characters in Made in Britain are not looters, but they are kids left disenfranchised by a failing system. If you want to understand the root causes of the unrest in the UK over the summer, then this is a good place to start. There is an Orwellian anger about this book that makes it hard to put down.
Made in Britain is published by Quartet and available now.