“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” or “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. The opening line of American Psycho, taken from Dante’s Inferno when he passes through the gates of hell, “scrawled in red blood lettering” on the wall of a bank in NYC. This is the first thing that came to my mind when I looked at Gavin James Bower’s Made in Britain, a novel depicting the dark underbelly of British society: the addiction, greed, bullying, hopelessness, injustice and suffering that underpin much of contemporary culture.
Made in Britain is set in a town “that might as well be called Every Town”. A town where “half the houses … are boarded up, the Asians are taking over and the only shop isn’t even a shop; it’s a Co-op Funeral Care”. It is told from the point of view of three teenagers all of whom dream of escaping their current plight but who are led to believe, for different reasons, that nothing good will ever come of their lives; that they will forever be the dregs of society. There is Russell, “the weird boy” who “is in love with the idea of being in love”; Charlie, the popular, hard as nails and “brooding type”; and Hayley, who is “pretty because she is different” but also “so thick … it’s not even funny”.
Made in Britain plays with stereotypes throughout and it is this which to a great extent drives the novel along. The book is brimming with racial tensions that constantly surface without dominating the story, instead bubbling along nicely in the background, always on the reader’s mind. Other stereotypes, though, such as working-class references are touched upon slightly less successfully, sometimes feeling a bit clichéd. I felt that the name dropping of British “institutions” such as Asda, Poundland and The Sun were superfluous. Whilst I appreciate that Mr Bower obviously wanted to make the issues distinctively British, it feels as though simply describing them as some sort of archetype would have been more powerful and would have had more of an impact, perhaps giving the book more universal meaning.
Having said that, Made in Britain is very clever in how it manages to challenge readers’ perceptions and expectations of stereotypes. Its different narratives show how easily we can be influenced by the opinion of others as all the characters have skewed perceptions of each other that rub off on the reader. Thus Hayley, who is in awe of Charlie, makes us think that he is more mature and intelligent than the other boys, portraying him as the reluctant hero who can do no wrong. Mr Bower’s characters are a real strength and focal point of the storyline. What’s more, the characters are believable and the colloquialism adds an air of authenticity to Made in Britain.
The strongest aspect of Made in Britain is how utterly readable it is. The short chapters divided into brief narratives make it a real page-turner, full of unexpected twists and turns that keep the reader guessing what the next development will be. The novel is captivating, heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measures. It is clever, haunting and beguiling. It plays with readers’ expectations brilliantly and makes you question what you know or thought you knew. It suggests that things aren’t always what they seem, but sometimes they simply are, no matter how much of a spin you try to put on them. Sometimes, the writing is on wall.
Special thanks to the kind folks at Quartet Books for agreeing to send us a copy of Made in Britain. If I were you I would buy a copy right now. Go! There aren’t too many better things you could be spending your money on.
First posted on The Ran$om Note which covers everything from cutting edge music reviews to dog walking blogs, art, culture and new world musings.