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Book Review: Feral Youth (Polly Courtney)

26th June 2013

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Set in the lead up to the London Riots in 2011, Feral Youth tells the story of 15-year-old Peckham girl Alesha – the so-called ‘poster child’ for a generation of teenagers whose lives are often hidden from view, whilst still being the of cause much handwringing/berating in the right wing press.  

Talk of society, politics and ‘disenfranchisement’ is not something that touches Alesha’s life, however. After escaping from a childhood with an abusive, drug-addicted mother, and then being forced to leave the flat that she shared with an old friend, his grandmother and a dog named GBH, she’s more concerned with having somewhere to sleep at night, and finding something to eat that day, and not being attacked.

The sixth novel from Polly Courtney was written with the hope of opening people’s minds – questioning the reasons behind the riots, rather than simply maligning those that were involved.

Before reading Feral Youth, I was worried that the story told would be a vain attempt to see the world from ‘Alesha’s’ perspective, and that this would come across as patronising - especially when I hit on the explanatory glossary that prefigures the first chapter.

However, as the reader gets deeper into the story and increasingly used to Alesha’s voice the lexicon begins to sound more natural. The glossary is there for reference if required – although the alienation offered by failure to fully understand Alesha’s language may work to symbolise her distance from us, and indeed the alienation from the rest of society that she feels as a result of her social situation.

Often Feral Youth is uncomfortable to read. With its focus on gangs, there is the notion that we don’t want to believe that children can be treated this way in a civilised society. Added to this is the desperation of Alesha’s situation, pitted against her hopefulness that she soon will be out of it. Again and again throughout the narrative, we see possible ways out for Alesha through her own eyes – but always with the underlying feeling that something will go wrong. We can often predict what may be about to happen as Alesha herself goes on regardless, thus highlighting her vulnerable naivety. When what we suspect may happen does, the narrative reaches a horrific moment of climax.

It is Alesha’s resourcefulness and positivity, alongside her underlying goodness, that makes us root for her, even when her actions seem deplorable, and it is this that pushes the narrative on as we race towards the unexpected ending and a potential new start for Alesha.

It is a novel that brings forth the opportunity for many questions: what can society do to help girls like Alesha? How can we stop anger like that seen in 2011 flaring again on the streets? What can be done to protect otherwise innocent teenagers from falling into crime, when there are no jobs and they can’t see any other way to survive? In an age of spending cuts, squeezed social spending and increasing levels of poverty, they are questions that Feral Youth urges us to address as a matter of priority. 

Feral Youth is released today and can purchased on Amazon.

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