Sunday, 24 February 2013

Turf, by John Lucas

The opening paragraph to John Lucas’ astounding novel of teen gangland warfare, Turf, says it all.

“When you’re fifteen, everything matters. I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff: what music you like, who your crew is, whatever. I mean everything. All the little details. The way you carry your bag, the way you wear your jeans... The way you cut your hair, the way you wear your hat. Where you cross the road - Traffic lights and zebra crossings are for pussies, bruv - to where you sit on the bus. Your postcode, your estate your, school.” (pg.1)

Jaylon is stuck in as many ways as you can name. He’s stuck on his estate, stuck in a turf war between his gang, the Blake Street Boyz, and the one on the rival estate, the Yoots. He’s stuck on where he gets to live, what his future will be, which friends he gets to make. You could argue this is a choice he made: he chose to join the Boyz, after all; or you could argue that he never had a choice: join the gang or be nothing. And now he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place: it’s time to prove himself and gang leader Shads has named his price. Jay must kill Ram.

And so Turf covers the period of time between Jay getting this instruction and the point at which he must carry it out. Its a scary and poignant snapshot into the life of those at the bottom of the pile, inner city estates and the dynamics of what might seem to me from the outside as petty warfare, but from the inside is life or death. Jaylon commits some terrible crimes and is put in some terrible situations, and it's impossible not to feel heartbroken for him, to not root for him. He so desperately wants to do the right thing, to break away from the place he finds himself in, but he just can’t figure out how.

Turf is intense and dark and not a story to be taken lightly. There is drug use; there is extreme violence. And there is also a surreal sort of edge to it. As Jaylon wanders the streets trying to figure things out, he meets a series of odd people - homeless pothead Leo, an old Rasta, a weird plant woman - who say cryptic things. Are they just the normal street effluvium, or are they something more? Spirit guides? Ghosts? Quietly, Jaylon descends almost into mental breakdown, haunted as he becomes by actions and choices, by these people and their words, and by strange hallucinations that plague him at home. Is it a result of drugs? Of malnourishment? Of stress and indecision?

I wonder whether Turf is a book that would fare better if repackaged for adults - the themes and subject matter, and Lucas’ expert treatment of them, makes it a book that surely deserves a type of accolade that is more likely to come from an adult audience and an adult reading perspective (think The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-time). This, of course, is not to say that teenaged readers won’t appreciate the content - they will, I am sure - but I don’t picture it getting the recognition it perhaps deserves through a teen audience alone. Repackaging it for adults would give it a wider and well-deserved readership that shelving it in the teenage section alone is likely to enable.

Ultimately, Turf ends the only way it realistically - and morally? - could. As the grafitti on the front cover image says, Jaylon’s is a world where you kill or die. The chances of escape are slim to none; hands down to John Lucas for beating the odds.

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