The Dirty South by Alex Wheatle

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The Dirty South by Alex Wheatle

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Crisp, clean writing with wit and humour tempers this story of the urban black experience in Britain. It's not angry, but it makes some angry points. For teens and adults. Bookbag absolutely loved it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 244 Date: April 2008
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 1852429852

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Dennis Huggins lives in Brixton twenty years after the riots. Things have changed. Rastas aren't the people to be afraid of any more. Some foolish white people even walk around with dreadlocks, looking idiotic. Some Muslims are to be feared though, as they move in on protection rackets and forced conversions. Dennis is a rather spoiled Bricky teenager. His mother is a teacher and his crippled father works in a library. So Dennis is always fitted out with the latest brand names and always has some money in his pocket. Despite this, Dennis drifts in to the easy, but dangerous, life of the shotta, or dealer, with his friend Noel.

Dirty South starts out with Dennis in a prison cell, and the rest of the story is told in flashback. So we know things get tough for him right from the start. And get tough they do.

There are several threads to the narrative. There's the relationship between Dennis and his best friend and dealing partner Noel. Outwardly, Noel is the stereotypical urban black youth. He's dirt poor, from a single parent family. His mother hits him. He's full of machismo, treats his girlfriends dreadfully, and sees violence as the way to control his patch. By contrast, slightly spoiled Dennis talks the talk but inside doesn't really walk the walk. This is most obvious in the narrative's other preoccupation, the relationship between Dennis and his girlfriend Akeisha. Dennis doesn't treat Akeisha like a shotta is supposed to treat his girlfriend. He puts her on a pedestal and worships her. For Dennis, the struggle to win Akeisha's love is far more important than his reputation on the street.

Yet the two boys share a deep affection, borne partly from a shared history - Dennis's father was a shotta in his day, and Noel's mother was part of the group - but also from a shared but unspoken understanding. They genuinely rely upon one another.

Dirty South has many points to make about the black urban youth experience in Britain, but it makes them without bitter recrimination. It's told with wit, verve and style. Dennis is such and open and vivid character, you can't help but root for him, even when he's making the most hideous mistakes, or embarked on an horrific course of action. I laughed far more often than I cried. But I did cry too. Like Shane Meadows in the film world, Wheatle shows that every life has moments of beauty - even lives right at the bottom of the pile like Noel's.

There's also a deep understanding of the social milieu at work, and although the book is written in a casual style, with patois and slang dialogue - at last! I know what a Croydon facelift is! - themes of alienation, lack of opportunity, failing education, family cohesion and social history are crafted seamlessly in. I loved it.

My thanks to the good people at Serpent's Tail for sending the book.

It's decidedly better than Made in Britain by Gavin James Bower.

Teen readers might also like to look at Teacher's Dead or The Knife That Killed Me. Asboville is another book about youth crime that will give you pause for thought.

Booklists.jpg The Dirty South by Alex Wheatle is in the Top Ten Love Stories For Teenagers.

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Buy The Dirty South by Alex Wheatle at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Dirty South by Alex Wheatle at


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