Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Ten Days by Gillian Slovo

Gillian Slovo is a South African born novelist who in 2011 wrote the play, The Riots, based on the civil disturbances which spread throughout the country that year. Her new novel, Ten Days, is not the play in novel form, nor is it a fictionalised account of the 2011 disturbances, but rather a novel inspired by them and set in the present day.

The story surrounds a single mother, Cathy, and her teenage daughter, Lyndall. Cathy has an unreliable partner, Banji, who regularly stays over. She is a leading figure in the local community association and they reside in the Lovelace Estate, a fictional sink estate in the deprived fictional London borough of Rockham. The Lovelace is slated for demolition. Relations have always been poor between the police and local residents, and this isn't helped by an almighty and oppressive heatwave that has enveloped London and has no apparent end in sight. When a well known local with mental health issues dies after being restrained by police, the community gathers around to support his parents in their quest for answers. They demonstrate outside the local police station and are ignored. One thing leads to another and rioting breaks out. This proves to be the spark that ignites various underlying grievances and soon the riots have spread, first to the wider Rockham area, then Greater London, and finally nationwide.

There are various other characters who surround this melodrama. We have a newly appointed Metropolitan Police Commissioner, his capable but possibly scheming deputy, an ambitiously amoral and plotting Home Secretary and the Prime Minister he wishes to depose. The Home Secretary’s wife and secretary also feature strongly in the sub-plot that is the political machinations underpinning the Government’s attempts to get to grips with the turmoil on the streets.

I found this very much to be a novel of two halves. The first half concentrates on setting the scene, defining the characters, painting a portrait of life in Rockham and the tensions that lie at the heart of the Westminster establishment. We learn that the new Commissioner was the Prime Minister’s choice and that he overruled the Home Secretary who favoured his deputy. While this was undoubtedly necessary, I found this part of the novel to drag a little. The second half of the novel, which describes the continuing rioting and the Government and Met’s attempts to get to grips with the disorder much more compelling, especially as a series of big revelations come thick and fast in both the main plot and the subplot.

The novel ends well and the author ties up all the loose ends and story lines, but I did find some issues with novel as a whole. For starters while the rioting spreads throughout London and to other cities in the country there is virtually no mention of this. Even in the scenes that feature the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, the focus is almost exclusively on the Lovelace Estate where trouble first started. At one point the Met Commissioner is told that other cities have got the problem under control and now he needs to get the Lovelace under control. And that’s about the only mention we get of the wider situation. Similarly, the Commissioner and his deputy seem totally unconcerned with what is going on elsewhere in Greater London. While there is some attempt to explain this by the fact that a chemical plant is sited near to the Lovelace, it's not convincing enough an explantation for the total lack of interest for elsewhere.  

The only other issue I had was with characterisation. Most of the characters are well drawn and I congratulate the author on that, but the exception is the Home Secretary. It's pretty apparent early on that he is one of the novel’s major villains. The problem is that at times the author’s portrayal of him borders on the parody; a Machiavellian figure constantly plotting, with a total absence of loyalty or principles, I felt that should he have been given just a few redeemable features his characterisation would be stronger for it.

All in all, this was an enjoyable and thoughtful novel and it's certainly worth a read. But I wouldn't say it was the most compelling story I've read, nor would I say it gave me a greater understanding of how and why a community can explode into disorder.

I would award this 4 out of 5 stars

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