Playground by Samuel Bonner

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Playground by Samuel Bonner

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A serious and bleak story of urban adolescence, peer pressure and the nature of friendship, and rocky paths with no easy routes back. It's vivid and immediate and visceral, but you'll need to get past some unfocussed writing and poor editing to enjoy it fully.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 319 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Empiricus Books
ISBN: 1902835190

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Jonah grew up in London but his mother, getting increasingly worried about social disintegration and increasing crime, has moved them up to Nottingham. Jonah is a bright lad and halfway through a media course, but he's finding it difficult to fit in. He's also finding the new racial mix a problem - there's palpable tension between black and brown-skinned people on campus, and he often feels alienated and a bit like a fish out of water.

But that's all in the background now. It's the holidays and Jonah's back in London for a week to stay with two childhood friends, Dwayne and Billy. And he quickly discovers things have changed. His friends' lives are a far cry from what they were, and even further from what Jonah's life is like now. They have a luxury flat, wads of cash, designer clothes and enough bling to shake a stick at. It's a lot to envy, especially when you're stuck in an unfriendly town, working in a bakery for minimum wage at weekends, and are having no luck with girls. To Jonah, his friends seem blessed.

But things soon disintegrate - all that glisters is not gold and it doesn't take much scratching at the surface to reveal a very seedy underbelly. Drugs, knives, guns, rape, even slavery - to how much will Jonah make himself an accessory before he finally decides to walk away?

Well, we know it's a quite a lot, as Playground has a prologue in which Jonah is giving a talk to young offenders, and the week really doesn't end well for him. It's an arresting first chapter, but I wish it hadn't been included - this is a gritty, urban, kitchen sink story and it's not as though we wouldn't be expecting our central character to pay a hefty price for his sins, but we do lose a bit when we know exactly what that price is from page one. Once the main, flashback narrative thread began, I enjoyed this ultra-realistic novel. First-time writer Bonner is intent on giving us a warts and all picture of his characters and their lives and he doesn't let us off even for a page. We see drunkenness, drug-taking, stabbings, shootings, sexual assaults, animal cruelty - even vomit and diarrhoea find their way in, so this book is pretty much for the stout of stomach only.

While it paints such a hyper-real picture of the inner city youth experience, I don't think this is so much a political or social commentary. It's mostly about peer pressure and friendship. Jonah has a conscience, but he's quite prepared to stretch it for some way before it eventually gives. I found him a fully-rounded and deeply credible character. Interestingly, Jonah is the central character but not the novel's pivotal one. That honour goes to Solomon, the enigmatic man behind Dwayne and Billy's new lifestyle. He is always in the background, but his malign influence pervades every page in the book. We never really know him, and perhaps he's intended as a cipher. He certainly made me shudder.

I don't like my reading to be sanitised and so I like this kind of book and enjoyed Playground a great deal, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the writing and plotting lacks focus on occasion. There's too much extraneous detail - not the gritty stuff, but telling not showing - and there are a few continuity errors. The proofing leads something to be desired also - conscious for conscience, generic for gender for instance. The book could do with a little bit more polish generally. If you're happy to overlook these things, though, there's a great deal to like in it. And the cover art is a triumph.

If you enjoy this kind of warts and all, realistic depiction of social problems and violence, there's some super stuff out there. The Dirty South by Alex Wheatle has crisp, clean writing and talks about the urban black experience in Britain. Forest Gate by Peter Akinti talks about suicide and blends many social issues and is beautifully written. Asboville by Danny Rhodes is a sympathetic and utterly unpretentious look at ASBOs and the youths that get them. You might appreciate To Die Alone by John Dean.

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