Monday, 8 May 2017

'Orangeboy' by Patrice Lawrence

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*This review will contain spoilers!*
'I laughed. "How many brain surgeons do you know from Hackney?"
She poked my back. "There may be some. Or you could be the first. You could really do that, Marlon." 

'Man, I couldn't stop looking at her. When I closed my eyes, I still saw her. Her hair was thick and blonde, and a curl looped over her ear to her shoulder. She wore black mascara and green eyeliner and her lips looked skin and sticky. 
Sonya Wilson was right there next to me and it made my brain buzz.'
Being on his first date with the most popular girl in school wasn't the only thing making Marlon Isaac Asimov Sunday's brain buzz - the quarter of an ecstasy tablet she'd given him was having an effect, too.

When Sonya, the gorgeous new girl, asks Marlon on a date, he can't believe his luck. After all of the trouble with his brother Andre, Marlon's been keeping his head down and focusing on his studies: he's not one of the tough kids leading the school. But it's paid off, and now he has a girl like Sonya on his arm.
They visit the local funfair, where Sonya offers him the ecstasy. He knows all of the cool kids would accept her offer, so he agrees - she's taking a quarter too, so it's not like he's doing it by himself - and they go on a couple of rides. Marlon spots some kids hassling Sonya, but when he asks her about it she dismisses him and pulls him towards the ghost train. 
Sonya doesn't make it to the other side of the ride. When they get to the other side, Marlon notices that she's not breathing: she died during their journey. 
Marlon finds it hard to cope with her death. Minutes earlier he'd been imagining their future together
'If we have kids together, what will their hair look like?
Kids? I haven't even kissed her yet.' 
and now Sonya is dead and Marlon's getting quizzed by the police, because she asked him to look after her stash of ecstasy pills for her before they boarded the train. 
The police aren't surprised to see another Sunday boy in their station. Andre - more commonly known as Booka - was heavily involved in the local gang scene until a car accident which left him brain damaged and his best friend dead. Marlon protests his innocence, but the police were certain he was guilty the second they discovered he was Andre's brother.
Marlon's mother is distraught. She doesn't want to be going through this with another son, so as soon as they get home she tells him to keep his act straight and to pretend he never met Sonya. He's haunted by her - the swish of her hair, her scent, the mustard-coated hotdog that was her last meal - and he can't believe she might have died because of the ecstasy: that he could have died, too, if he'd been unlucky.
Marlon feels as though his guilt will evaporate if he meets Sonya's grandmother, her primary carer. That way he can apologise for his involvement and try to explain the situation, so they won't think he was only with her to force her to take drugs.
Sonya's grandmother already knew about Sonya's involvement in drugs, so she isn't surprised by what Marlon tells her. She gives him Sonya's Blackberry - a different phone than the one Marlon knew she had - and by doing so sends his life spiraling out of control as he gets thrown in the deep end. 
Marlon's right in the middle of a war Andre started, and he's going to have to finish it for him.

I found this book quite slow, and it became a chore to get through. It's such a shame, because I was excited about this debut long before it hit the shelves... I didn't read it at the best time and that's my fault, not Patrice's! 
That being said, I'm glad working class YA is becoming more prominent, especially as it's not being used as 'poverty porn'. Marlon's mum works in a library and has a well-off boyfriend, they have a lovely house: Andre's involvement in the gangs didn't happen because of desperation. It was a lifestyle choice. 
After reading 'Liccle Bit' by Alex Wheatle a couple of weeks ago, I said I loved the way that he compared the relationship between gang members and family members, and how the two are so closely linked. Patrice Lawrence also plays with this idea: D-Ice, who targets Marlon, is the brother of Tayz, the man who ran Andre off the road. D-Ice feels a misguided loyalty to his brother and resolves to tear Marlon's family apart - it's a harrowing look at the way grief affects your sense, and how revenge is never the answer
I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Andre's brain injury, which is extremely effective. We're told he used to be top dog, the man everyone bowed down to, the kind who had a gun just in case. But because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt when he crashed, he now struggles with his memory and has episodes of uncontrollable rage, which is why he's confined to a care home. To see the contrast between who we're told he was and how he is now is heartbreaking, and hammers home the importance of road safety - it's not done in a preachy way, but it's not often that authors draw your attention to the character buckling their seatbelt, and it's a small but effective way of reminding readers to do the same
However, I struggled with 'Orangeboy' because it felt unfinished. The ending was extremely rushed, and because the pacing throughout the first three quarters was so slow the sudden increase in speed gave me whiplash and had me rereading the page after every other paragraph. Some things remained unexplored and unexplained, which was frustrating: this would have been a far more effective standalone if everything had been wrapped up towards the conclusion, but I still have a lot of questions that haven't been answered. 
Overall, this is an effective and interesting debut, but based off of the rave reviews I've seen I was expecting a little bit more. 

It's probably my fault that I didn't like this book as much as I was expecting to. I tried to speed read it in time for the #SundayYA book club chat last month (because I'd been slacking off even though I knew I had to read it) and that made me begrudging towards it. 
Here's a lesson, kids: don't force yourself to read something you don't want to. 
I really like Patrice's voice and the fact that she had no qualms about focusing on a very harrowing topic. I definitely like this more for reading it quite close to Alex Wheatle's Crongton series: despite the fact that series has a far more humorous tone, the unwilling involvement in gang war is a compelling narrative. 
I'm looking forward to reading more from Patrice in the future (and hopefully giving this one a reread when I'm in a better place!). 

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