Co-authored with Emily Duff
Peter Kalu is the artistic director of Commonword−Cultureword and began his career as a member of the Manchester-based black writers workshop Moss Side Write. Along with Lemm Sissay, he is known as a champion of black writing in Manchester and as an author who has moved with aplomb from performance poetry to the page. He has written extensively on race relations, crime, and futuristic dystopias in his six novels, poetry, plays and a film script to date. The Silent Strikeris his first teen novel, and is a rich addition to what is often the monotonous, monochrome storytelling and characters of Young Adult (YA) writing.
On the surface, it is the tale of a Manchester teenager who has to overcome obstacles in the way of success. Marcus is in Year 9 and is a talented footballer, spending every spare moment practising and, excitingly, being watched by a Manchester United talent scout. The discovery that he is partially deaf, as well as tension with rivals and his vicious Geography teacher, throws Marcus's ambitions into disarray. He finds himself suspended from the school's football team just a few days before the interschool league final. This comes on top of having to look after his younger sister, managing his feelings for his rival's attractive sister, and navigating the shifting favouritism of his football coach.
The bustling elements that meet in this novel are managed confidently by Kalu, and plotlines are developed with an appropriate mix of humour and gravity. Its treatment of racism and disability are two issues that make the book stand out. Although Marcus's hearing problems aren't severely limiting and incidents of racism in the book are not directed at him, the presence of both concerns greatly impact on Marcus. These thorny and intersecting subjects are addressed in the context of more commonly narrated teenage pressures surrounding school, family, romance and sport. Marcus's epiphanic exploration of his home with his hearing aid in - turning on the kettle, listening to his radiator, the birds outside - is touching, as is the support he gets from his friends.
Marcus makes an astute point about race in the changing rooms after a practice session. His teammates turn the school rivalry into black versus white conflict, shouting 'Ghana vs. Germany' in the locker room. Marcus reflects on the fact that neither of these international sporting teams is all white nor all black, but concludes: 'no-one cared for that distinction. Ideas were funny like that Marcus thought, they stuck, independently of the truth'. Such a gradated observation reflects Kalu's own background; the son of Nigerian and Danish parents, Kalu grew up 'always with a sense of a wider world, of other languages, other ways of being, parallel and alternative lives'.
The novel's main hook of football is compelling. As reviewers with little interest in or understanding of the beautiful game, we still found the detailed descriptions of matches and practice sessions interesting and pacy. The parries, tactics and goals say more about the characters than merely how their feet move. In particular, Marcus and his adversarial teammate Leonard develop significantly over the course of the novel, not only in terms of skill but also their ability to put that skill to the best use in the context of their team. The football matches are some of the most adeptly written scenes in the book, with Kalu interlacing the action of play with sideline drama and teammate hostility.
The author's evident depth of soccer knowledge sits uneasily alongside the fact that Marcus sleeps with his favourite football under his pillow, an arrangement that seems both impractical and uncomfortable. At some moments, Kalu over-explains the action, while other plot points seem inconsistent or tend towards the soap-operatic. To take a few examples, Marcus takes a week off school without any apparent repercussions, he is suspended from and reinstated to the football team with little justification, and his Geography teacher ought to face disciplining for the ableist bullying she metes out to Marcus.
These minor criticisms aside, the story is well told and its subject matter handled with passion and complexity. Adults will find much that they recognize in the novel's portrayal of adolescent angst, and young people will be drawn in by its unswerving depictions of the depth and scope of teenage life. Above all, disabled readers and people of colour will at last find the parameters of normalcy expanded in a YA novel.