When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola — London falling

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A vivid novel about young black men grappling with urban injustice and gender identity
We’ve heard the story before of the two teenage black boys living in one of London’s inner city estates, grappling with racism and lack of opportunity, and their friendship being tested by the choices they make.
But we haven’t heard it like this. Here one of our protagonists is also grappling with gender identity, and it is his quest to find a state of “wholeness”, a place to “be myself”, that makes Olumide Popoola’s flamboyant and moving debut novel stand out. Best friends Karl and Abu live in the shadows of the “fancy-pantsy King’s Cross major reconstruction mayhem”, as they think of it (“how much building could you do in one effing junction?”).
It’s the summer of 2011, when the UK is still locked in the fall-out from the banking crisis and the riots sparked by the killing of Mark Duggan are waiting in the wings. With classes over for the year, Karl decides to embark on a sudden trip to Port Harcourt in Nigeria to meet his father for the first time, leaving Abu to help keep this a secret from Karl’s sick mother.
Meanwhile, Abu is love-struck by fellow student Nalini and in need of wooing advice and general emotional support. He sends Karl increasingly angry texts as his absence goes on for longer than expected.
“tired of cleaning up after u. all u do is disappear. whatevr. movin on,” Abu writes. “Only been few wks,” Karl messages back. Popoola cleverly uses text-speak to convey whole movements of plot and character emotion. The novel has a language all its own, composed of London slang, tech jargon, black dialect, vivid poeticism, and the musicality of grime and rap: a business partner is a “biz bro”, a hospital is described as “long corridors of hush hush rush”, Nalini has a “fuchsia-framed smile”.
It’s almost a listening experience, as well as a very visual reading experience, and the overall effect is a deeper intimacy with Abu and Karl’s complex inner-worlds. “You could see it. Inside, thoughts speeding, mind flying all over. Like major fast,” Karl thinks when hearing news of his father’s untimely disappearance.
The Nigeria sections of the novel, interspersed with Abu’s London narrative, are particularly lively in their description, with the “gooey air” and the houses that looked “like they needed moisturiser” and the traffic that “put King’s Cross in the shade like proper”. There is a funny scene on the drive from the airport that conveys Karl’s sense of bewilderment: “This is the airport road.
This is this. This is another this. And this info belongs to this another this. It is related to that (story etc) and ah you will understand later” is his impression of his Uncle T’s energetic tour-guiding. When they reach Karl’s father’s house, however, the confusion intensifies, as Karl has failed to meet his father’s expectations and the welcome he had been hoping for is nowhere in sight.
Still hopeful of a paternal embrace, Karl stays on to explore this country of half his blood, and finds that he feels more accepted here than in London. He learns of the oil crimes affecting the Niger Delta and how small one’s problems become in the face of mass murder. He meets a beautiful fashion student called Janoma and braves the ultimate exposure of his true self, the realities of King’s Cross “slowly fading away, like a painting left on the side of a street”.
His return to London is fraught with the consequences of Abu’s involvement in the riots, and this is where some of the most poignant and heart-wrenching moments of the novel occur, in the troubled waters of an enduring friendship and the reuniting of a fractured family.
It’s not often we hear in such exacting articulation the voices of the young from behind the cranes and forklifts of London’s eternal regeneration crusade, from the wastelands of financial and political corruption, from the rubble that looks like the future.
“I didn’t make this mess,” Abu rightly states. All he and Karl can do is find a way to live inside it, and this book bears witness to that difficult journey with a sense of truth, nuance and comedy. A satisfying and perceptive examination of the emergence of the whole person against the odds posed by a constricting society.
When We Speak of Nothing, by Olumide Popoola, Cassava Republic Press, RRP£9.99, 256 pages Diana Evans’s new novel, ‘Ordinary People’, will be published by Chatto in March 2018

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