Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 30, 2019

In Our Mad and Furious City (2019), by Guy Gunaratne

Winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prise, and nominated for the Booker and the Goldsmiths, In Our Mad and Furious City is deeply depressing reading if you love London as I do. It is the story of three youths negotiating the rise in anti-Islamic tension that follows the slaughter of a returned soldier on the streets of London, an event reminiscent of the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013.  Ardan, Selvon* and Yusuf are London-born teenagers of immigrant heritage: Ardan is of Ulster Catholic background; Selvon’s parents came postwar from Monserrat in the Caribbean; and Yusuf and his troubled brother Irfan are sons of the recently deceased imam, who has been replaced by a hardline fundamentalist encouraging radical Islamism and enforcing Islamic dress code with his own personal gang of bullies aligning themselves with the Muhajiroun.

The London that I know is the London tourists know, and the nostalgic London of my childhood: a quiet suburban street in Rickmansworth where I danced the Maypole at a village fair; watching fireworks from the roof garden of a flat in Chelsea; and feeding the ducks with my grandfather at Queens Park in Kilburn.  That’s not the ‘real’ London, any more than any part of Melbourne can be said to be the ‘real’ Melbourne.  But it’s not the grime, grit and hopelessness of Gunaratne’s London that depresses me.  There are pockets of disadvantage in cities the world over, and none of that is going to change unless people get over their disenchantment with politics, and in sufficient numbers join or form parties that offer an alternative to existing policies that perpetuate inequality.  No, what depresses me is the deeply divided nature of the city depicted by Gunaratne, a situation described just this weekend in ‘Britain is in the grip of an existential crisis that reaches far beyond Brexit’ by Aditya Chakrabortty at The Guardian.  (If you want any proof that the Queen is a useless figurehead, it’s her failure to unify the British people in the face of this crisis).

In Our Mad and Furious City takes place over 48 hours, in which the boys go from playing football with a bunch of other kids from all over (immigrants from Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and Ireland) to being sucked into the violence of a riot between Islamists and White Supremacists.  The story is narrated by five voices: Yusuf, Ardan and Selvan, plus Ardan’s alcoholic mother Caroline and Selvan’s father Nelson, profoundly disabled by a stroke.  Yusuf’s mother doesn’t have a voice and is barely a presence because she has been crushed not only by the death of her husband in a car accident but also by the shame of her son Irfan’s #NoSpoilers immoral behaviour.  But her husband’s voice, treasured in Yusuf’s memory, is the voice of the moderate imam who kept the radicals at bay.  Yusuf hears his father quoting parts of the Qur’an that suit the message of tolerance and peace.  He does not want to join his brother in wearing a kameez and white skullcap.  He doesn’t like it when he gets hauled away from his beloved ‘footie’ by the Muhajiroun who he recognises as the bully boys from school.

When the firebrand imam goes too far and humiliates Irfan with a demand that he relocate away from the temptations of the west and back to Pakistan, he ignites a spark that sets fire to a community already on edge because of the Islamist who butchered the soldier.  But Yusuf rejects the imam’s blame-shifting as a fantasy:

In that moment on top of the hill, with a cool breeze whispering and the leaves bringing in the light, the glow of the city lit our faces.  The spires of Mosque were below in the distance like a bright temple.  Those golden points of light.  Abu Farouk had told us that [Irfan’s] sickness was not of his own making.  As if his heart was lent this horror by the city, by its impurity, by the West.  But it was not the truth and I knew it.

I looked into his eyes and I could already see the lie spreading.  I thought of all the secrets he had surrounded himself with up until now.  After all the tears my mother and I had shed for him, it was that man Farouk who had offered another fantasy, that he was now clinging to.  No, I thought.  I had to speak the truth to him now, finally.  (p.179)

Yusuf forces Irfan to see that this imam and the way that he has perverted the Mosque, is not the Islam of their father.  And he speaks to Irfan as his father would have:

There is no-one out here except you bro.  You did this.  You have to take it man. Take the responsibility, like, even though it’s hard. (p.179)

But this personal existential crisis happens in the context of a wider political crisis in the city.  When the mosque is burnt down, it is the far-right fascists of Britain First who get the blame, and a riot erupts with devastating consequences.

A couple of reviews at Goodreads suggest that the narratives of parents Nelson and Caroline are superfluous.  I don’t think so.  All the main characters are there to reject violence.  These older characters have grievances too, but turn away from violence at great personal cost.

Caroline learns as a teenager in Northern Ireland that her family are IRA.  When a girl called Eily is pack-raped and left for dead as a warning from the Protestants, Caroline’s rage propels her towards vengeance.  But at the last moment she pulls out of her role as a decoy when she decides she wants no more of it.

No.  Suddenly I gripped the door. I mustn’t see this happen.  No matter what Ma had said.  I mustn’t see this girl.  She’d be gagged and tied.  This Prot girl.  I had kept it down thus far but I was bursting.  I pictured those ropes coiled behind me and now it all came rushing.  My ma’s words, the man on the stage, the stories of kneecapping, the shaven heads and tarring, the faces burned and cut, the boys found floating in the river.  Eily, left at the hospital doors beaten and blue.  Mine was a family of plotters, fire-filled with vengeance, the man, he spoke of the dead and nearly dead.  My da had been on that stage more than once and said the same and died for it.  He said we were a people crushed by cruelty, and now we’d be feared ourselves.

But that was them.  It was not me. (p.200-1).

Her furious family packs her off to London, where her life falls apart in loneliness and despair.

Nelson, who arrived in postwar London with great hopes only to experience discrimination, refuses to join fellow-immigrants in confrontation with the infamous Oswald Mosley.  This decision isolates him, and his years of saving up to bring his beloved Maisie over are desperately lonely.  He misses the joy of his island life, but it is Nelson who brings an optimistic tone to the conclusion of the novel.  Two years after his own emigration, he is back in Monserrat to collect Maisie, where he is beguiled by the beauty of his home:

The beauty of the place lift my spirit then and for a moment I catch myself getting the pull back.  There was something Plymouth could offer Maisie and me that London could not.  The way this land simply exist on its own terms.  Is a place more gentle.  See the trees.  The gigantic mountain beyond it.  I think of all the hardness in London.  The narrow road, the cold block tower and the fool temper what have people push this way and that.  So easy to get lost in the strangled madness of it.  But Lord, as plain as the sand under the foot, I can live no other way.  No matter how tempting the charm of island life, I was a islander no longer.  And in London, it was worth the fight, if I can fight it with Maisie.  (p.282-3)

(I have no doubt that Gunaratne deliberately chose Plymouth for this idyllic scene in order to make the point that many immigrants cannot go back where they came from.  In 1995 the then long-inactive Soufrière Hills volcano erupted, destroying Plymouth entirely.  It is now a ghost town).

*The unusual name Selvon is a reference to a Caribbean author called Sam Selvon.  Featured in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die with a novel called The Lonely Londoners, Selvon was one of the first to tell the story of Black Caribbean immigrants in London.  I looked it up in 1001 Books and it sounds interesting so I’ve ordered a copy.  (Update: read my review here.)

You can find out more about Guy Gunaratne at his website.

Annabel at Annabookbel reviewed it too and so did Marina at Finding Time to Write.

Author: Guy Gunaratne
Title: In Our Mad and Furious City
Publisher: Tinder Press, 2019, 295 pages
ISBN: 9781472250216
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: In Our Mad and Furious City


  1. Will I, or won’t I? I am tempted, with reservations. So much to be depressed about at present.


    • Yes, I know. It took me longer to read than a book of this length normally would because I was happy to be distracted by other things (especially 8 Days on SBS, don’t miss it!).
      But all the same, it’s a book well worth reading.


  2. Britain must be regretting that it ever had colonies, particularly those ones where the colonizers were in the minority, which is to say Ireland, India, and throughout Africa and the Caribbean. But anyway it’s long past time we accepted that monocultural societies are a thing of the past.


  3. Sounds like a powerful novel Lisa, with a strong title and cover too.


  4. […] was when I was recently reading In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne that I came across the name Sam Selvon: in a nod to the antecedents of his novel, Gunaratne had […]


  5. […] Trinity by Louisa Hall (b. 1982) was an impulse loan from the New Books stand at the library.  It was nominated for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize, which was won by Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (which I reviewed here). […]


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