I don’t like thrillers. The specific ways in which tension works in a thriller narrative tend to register to me as actively unpleasant. This was true even before the last year or so made me spectacularly unable to deal with vulnerable characters being put at risk. But I knew I was going to be reading Orangeboy, however reluctantly–it was Carnegie-eligible (though not on the shortlist or longlist, but that is a matter for a separate post), Costa-shortlisted, Waterstones prize-shortlisted, Jhalak prize-longlisted; and it’s a work of YA about a young black character and by a black British author at a moment when both British publishing and Britain itself seem to be really doubling down on racial exclusion.
So I did the bad thing (I don’t really think this was a bad thing); early in the book, when our protagonist Marlon has been found with drugs in his pocket and a dead white girl next to him and I was particularly worried about where this was going to go, I flipped to the back of the book to see how it ended. Knowing where it was going to go made it a much easier book to read.
But all of this is perhaps overemphasising my reluctance–even before I’d had to check the ending, I was already surprised by how quickly and easily I’d fallen into the book.
Marlon is in his teens, a bit of a nerd, good at school but generally not remarkable. His father (who is responsible for naming him Marlon Isaac Asimov Sunday) is dead, his older brother badly injured in a car accident some years ago that killed his best friend Sharkie and has left him scarred and, among other things, unable to remember his little brother very well. As the book opens, Marlon is at the fair with Sonya Wilson, a pretty girl from school who has, out of the blue and to his utter bewilderment, asked him out. Marlon has avoided drugs in large part because of his older brother’s example, but Sonya gets him to try ecstasy. Then, as they ride the ghost train, she convinces him to hide the rest of the pills in his pants. And by the time they have emerged from the tunnel, she’s dead and he doesn’t understand what has happened or why. Suddenly, he’s involved not just with the police, but in deeper and deeper trouble, with someone who is clearly targeting him.
It’s interesting to be reading Orangeboy in the same year as I’ve read both (so far) of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton books, because though very different in tone (and Wheatle’s books feel directed at a younger audience) they work off one another in some interesting ways. As with both Crongton books, Lawrence’s protagonist is drawn into this dangerous series of events as a result of an older sibling’s previous choices. (Choice is a loaded word here, and we’re given plenty of opportunity to see how those choices are weighted, but at the same time, these characters are never merely hapless victims of circumstance. There is, for example, a definite moment when Marlon decides he’s going to put himself at risk to find out what happened to Sonya. Even if later events show that had he backed away his targeters still would have come after him, that decision still has meaning.) There’s also, as with Wheatle, a very specific and deliberate use of cultural reference not to underpin the text and give it a particular structure and meaning (or not only that, as that seems to be one of the functions of the quest literature references in Crongton Knights) but for colour, and warmth, and play.
So we get:
Walking through the estate, I tried to remember the streets I’d passed. Rothko Heights, Dali Court, Turner Tower. These ones were different. [...]
Mondrian, Blake, Hirst. This definitely wasn’t the way I came.
(c.f. the Notre Dame sections of Crongton Knights.)
Then there’s a throwaway detail that Marlon’s best friend is really named Titian. Marlon himself, as I’ve said, has “Isaac Asimov” as his middle names (his mother tells him it might have been worse, he might have been named after a minor Blakes 7 character*), and we learn later that his first name is “after Superman’s dad in the film”. His dad proposed to his mother in Klingon, his brother’s middle names are “Han and Luke”, he himself describes Tish’s new boyfriend as “a skinny version of Roy, the mad replicant from Blade Runner“. Some of this feels a bit clumsy (though I’m suppressing my “Star Trek and Star Wars?” scepticism); some of it’s marvellously built in; there’s a moment where he describes his brother’s crooked glasses and “the scar that almost cut his face in two” and doesn’t mention Harry Potter. But either way, I like the way it layers the Sunday family as composed of SF fans, their London as composed of art references, gives them, and their world, more to do and be than characters in a thriller. (The book’s cover also feels relevant here.) Perhaps the one character to suffer that fate is Sonya, whose death quickly shifts from being the central mystery to an unimportant aside, as the book reassures us that really it’s all about Marlon. (But perhaps this is not the time to complain about the Problem With All Narratives That Foreground A Protagonist.)
There’s lots to like, so here are some things: That Marlon has a mum who goes in to fight for him magnificently; that her, and therefore his, circumstances give him privileges that another character like D-Ice can’t count on; that moment where D-Ice invokes fairytale naming powers (if only to remind Marlon that they’re not real; Louis leaving the police force; the number of ways the book dramatises care between friends and family and community–from Tish’s willingness to date assholes for information that’ll keep Marlon safe to Marlon’s own choice to keep his mother safe from the knowledge that her words turned Marlon and Andre into targets (she’s bound to find out, but this again is one of those choices that mean something in and of themselves) to little things like bus drivers who slow down for women to catch them. I’m not reconciled to the genre, and I don’t think I’m going to enjoy reading about danger for a while; but in the spaces outside and around its thriller plot, Orangeboy manages, quietly, to build and make more imaginable things that feel nourishing.
* Because I’m friends with Erin Horáková (whose essay on Blakes 7 you should read), I feel compelled to point out that Orangeboy spells the title with an apostrophe and my loyalties demand that I register disapproval.