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April 25, 2010

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Elusive beauty found in grim tale of racial hardship

PETER Akinti's first novel, "Forest Gate," is about broken bodies and a broken country. Titled after a deprived district in East London, the novel begins with a double suicide attempt: a hanging that leaves a young Somalian refugee dead and his British friend James still alive, collared with bruising, his trachea embedded with rope.

The dead man, Ashvin, has a sister, Meina; and after the absorbing violence of the opening scene, the novel slows as she and James begin a relationship. Somalia - where "people kept light to a minimum out of fear of the roaming militia" - is described in poetic flashbacks, allowing the failed state to retain a measure of beauty, without London's constant rain and racism.

Akinti grew up in Forest Gate, and his attempt to detail the contemporary black British experience is visceral and immediate. Poverty and the schism between British-born blacks and African immigrants are both present, but most engaging is the neighborhood itself. From the slums - where desperate public housing complexes are named for pioneering African statesmen like Mandela and Nkrumah - London's celebrated real estate is close enough to see, but distant in any real sense.

The remoteness of Norman Foster's "Gherkin" building is apparent when that turgid skyscraper, emblematic of the city's recent boom years, is dismissed as a huge phallic symbol for the financial district.

"Forest Gate" is hot with fury; an episode relating Ashvin's and James' harassment and sexual abuse at the hands of the Metropolitan Police is a lesson in controlled outrage. The novel elegantly illustrates contemporary Britain's failure to assimilate its immigrants, or to allow a hyphenated sense of identity.

Akinti's characters do not think of themselves as Somali-Britons. Instead, orphaned by the murder ... of their parents and cast out by their country's failures, Ashvin and Meina find that "the streets of London were carved out into territories just as they had been at home."

Akinti opens "Forest Gate" with an epigraph from James Baldwin, and the book is littered with references to him. But the British black experience doesn't always overlap neatly with the American one. In a telling scene, James recalls traveling to central, prosperous London and watching the barristers - the wig-wearing courtroom practitioners of Britain's legal system.

By the Royal Courts of Justice, James spots a smartly dressed black man clutching The Financial Times, his cuffs monogrammed, his face "scared," James thinks, "like he knew he was one false move away from the street."

This fear might make sense for Baldwin's American characters, but it doesn't for Akinti's upper-class British barrister. Without a doubt there are feudal absurdities to British society °?- its accents are like barcodes, rife with data on birth and education that the native ear can decipher.

But one advantage of a country that fractures so dependably on class lines is that it tends not to on racial ones: a black man with the trappings of privilege can be secure in that privilege.

Akinti, borrowing American rhetoric, fails to acknowledge that calcified Britain allows an alternative route to racial acceptance precisely because of the importance attached to pronunciation and monogrammed cuffs.

There are other weaknesses here too, notably the insufficient differentiation among various characters who tell much of the story in the first person. Meina's middle-aged white guardian, thinking about the nature of black manhood, sounds surprisingly like his teenage Somali ward.

Still, Akinti has acquitted himself with substantial elan and transformed a grim place into a thing of beauty.


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