It’s a short story, or a novella, that I bought already during the lockdown, after reading the brilliant Girl, Woman, Other. I read it in just over an hour because once you pick it up it’s hard to put down.
The book is a letter, written by Jerome, a black teenager, to his mother. It may seem strange that a teenager would write a letter, but as the story develops we realize the reason with heartbreaking clarity. Actually, we know it earlier, because for some reason the publisher decided to put a massive spoiler on the front and back cover. I really don’t know why, it changes the way we interact with the book, steals away some of its tension.
Jerome through most of the book rages at his mother, is snide in a way so typical to teenagers. He rages about the fact that they are poor, that the estate they live in is not safe and involved in the postcode war. Which may not mean anything to adults, that gradually become invisible to gang members, but it means everything, it means the difference between life and death to boys Jerome’s age.
He clearly tries to be tough and respected. This is what the environment demands. School is perceived as yet another oppressive place, where teachers are useless and you can be robbed at any time. Then when Jerome gets home he also feels suffocated, by his mother’s demands and the need to care about his younger sister. When she in fact is the only person towards who he expresses tenderness.
Then one evening Jerome and his friend are attacked. And this makes all the difference. We realize it is one thing to live in constant danger and another to see your fear materialized. And being aware that it is not a one-off occurrence, but can happen to you at any point. Something snaps in Jerome and he approaches his local gang, searching for protection under the wings of a larger group. He also is impressed with the gang leader and his older brother, both clearly proving that the only way of going up in the world available to those boys is to become a criminal.
As Jerome’s relationship with the gang leader develops his tone changes. He stops raging becomes more tentative and attentive. And when he is given his first gang task he turns into a lost child that he really is. Scared, alone, not seeing a way out. So he does this and then the inevitable happens. But the only thing he was looking for was safety, and the only thing he wants to do now is to explain to his mum that he’s not a bad person. Even if it is too late.
Evaristo has full control of her language and the story here. Building the tension deftly, despite publisher spoilers. We are immersed in Jerome’s world, his perception of reality, his anger. The contradiction between being tough and being a child still. The oppressive world that formed him, from which there is no way out.
It’s a heartbreaking story, but also an angry scream, for something needs to be done, now, if we those children are to be saved and not become yet another statistic. We have to all look beyond the mass, the statistics, and see real people. Each and every one of them with their individual story, with their experiences and dreams, each of them equal. Each of them angry, because Black Lives Matter and no one wants to acknowledge this.