Feral Youth. Polly Courtney. Troubador Publishing Ltd. August 2013. 312 pp. ISBN#: 9781783060580.
Alesha is the classic “feral youth,” and this is her heartbreaking story. Illiterate, unwanted by her parents, kicked out of every school she attempted to attend, and feeling totally unloved except for her best friend, J.J. who only shows love and care to his elderly grandmother, “Nan.”
Alesha truly believes she has no options. There’s a whole body of language that’s the Jamaican patois lingo of the gangs in the south end of London and the author supplies a glossary of meaning to those who haven’t a clue what life is like for these youths. Most will never survive their young adult years; the others will wind up in jail. Their world is one of “survival of the fittest, but Alesha wonders in other words what exactly she’s fit for?
This young, 15 year-old girl, earns her money by stealing clothes, delivering dope, cowering in fear to the leaders of gangs who are also at war with each other. Several times Alesha is the victim of violence, especially when she fails to pay up after one of her drug deliveries goes bad or when she fails to acknowledge that she is owned in reality by those bigger in the criminal hierarchy of the Peckham Crew. Her closeness to J.J. and earning “p’s” (money) is her whole world and that world is about to undergo a violent transformation.
Early on in the story Alesha meets a middle-aged woman and piano teacher, Miss Merfield, who tries to show Alesha she does have options. Depending on one’s point of view, one might feel deeply for Alesha’s attempts to change her life’s direction or one might perhaps feel quite irritated with her caustic responses in multiple scenes. For her lack of self-respect yields consequences in which she consciously or unconsciously sabotages her own chances for beginning a different lifestyle with reputable employment and education. Others outside of her gang world certainly haven’t an ounce of sympathy for gang members like Alesha and a sense of empathy is as close as another planet. For few of us can even imagine this poignant, tragic lifestyle endured on a daily basis!
One doesn’t enjoy this story but must acknowledge that it’s a necessary one that needs to be told. For this astute author deeply believes that the public needs to acquire awareness of just how imprisoned these feral youths are in their own insecurities, fears, and the veneer of toughness. One realizes how Alesha’s nasty attitude evolves from rejection to deep-seated anger that breaks out after any innocent or flagrant trigger appears. One senses how sharing her story turns into a gross betrayal beyond words toward the end of the novel and another event will practically shatter her forever. No, it’s not far-fetched; it’s so very real, shocking!
This novel was based on the actual 2011 Blackberry London riots. Polly Courtney, kudos to you for taking on such a huge task of delineating the world of the disenfranchised, of those with no hope and no future. Whether they succeed or fail, the Miss Merfields of this world deserve even more acclaim for attempting to bring hope to youth who have no basis of believing in anything beyond their criminal and hard-hearted environment! Words are inadequate to convey the impact of this story that deserves world-wide attention – for it isn’t only England’s problem – it’s ours, wherever we live! Highly recommended.