London Rocks by Brenda Lee Browne
*disclaimer* I edited an early draft of this book and, among other things I’ve recommended it for, advocated for its inclusion in a special issue of Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters in which a writer established in the Caribbean literary canon introduces a new writer to the canon. I recently re-read it and while it wouldn’t be ethical for me to review it, I thought I’d share my thoughts coming to it now in its published form purely as a reader.
London Rocks is the story of Dante, a Black British youth – of Caribbean, specifically Antiguan-Barbudan descent. Don’t let the book’s deceptive thinness (novella length at just 93 pages, including a glossary) fool you, it’s a weighty volume made lighter by the rhythmic flow of the narrative, the precise use of language, the way it captures inner visions by being both symbolic and real, and the atmospheric rendering of setting – that setting, a London rarely seen, and even more rarely understood (by those who think race issues for Blacks in a metropolis is purely an American problem). The trials of a British-made, Caribbean-descended youth is made that much more topical by the recent trials of the Windrush and post-Windrush generation (some of whom lacked the paperwork to prove they belonged, and experienced loss of benefits and deportation) in the current, anti-other reality.
Dante whom I love as a character (credit to his characterization by the author) but who sometimes frustrates me as a person (again credit to the author) is carrying a lot. In London Rocks, he is dealing with coming of age (he’s a young man trying to figure out his place in the world, especially so the world of music in which he faces betrayal as he begins to lay his claim as a toaster, the poet who rides the riddim and hypes up the crowd). He deals with abandonment issues (or daddy issues, take your pick), and abandonment issues times two (when he loses a friend, who was like a brother, to situational depression, which he himself battles). He deals with trying to be a good father to his daughter (imperfectly, as it happens), baby-momma issues (the challenges of co-parenting after the love has gone), and momma issues (his relationship with his mother is actually one of the solid rocks in Dante’s life but what happens when she leaves on a trip home and later a trip to the hospital – he has to grow up, that’s what). His mother, who doubles as his business manager, is there as he navigates the music business and tries to find his artistic voice and purpose. But no one can help him as he moves through the streets of late 1970s-early 1980s London as a Black youth, targeted by malevolent forces, one of those being the police empowered by SUS laws – the UK’s version of stop and frisk. His oasis, but someone who reminds him and us that she’s not just there to serve his story, Marcia, is something new for Dante, a complicated love (because, as he learns, any love worth fighting for is not without its complications).
Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I’ll reference some of what I said in that Moko introduction. That London Rocks “bridges the gap between the Caribbean of those who grew up a world apart (London, post-Windrush generation) and home (Antigua); and immerses the reader in the then-emerging dub/rave culture of London-Caribbean youth trying to carve out a space for themselves. It also introduces a compelling and complex young man (Dante) – trying to find his voice and the narrative of his life through the violence and void of the space he inhabits, trying to be a good son and a good father, and a worthy lover. … it’s Dante’s world, and after reading an excerpt you’ll want to know it too and wonder why some enterprising publisher hasn’t optioned it already.”
Since I wrote that, obviously someone has optioned it – UK-Caribbean independent, Hansib, which previously did the second edition of my first book The Boy from Willow Bend (another disclaimer) – which is good because I don’t think we’ve seen this particular story before.
And now to some of the thoughts I jotted on re-read: my dislike of the barbershop confrontation (too made in Hollywood and unnecessary as far as Dante’s arc), a troubling saint-sinner dichotomy as far as the female characters in Dante’s life are concerned, and that Dante is pampered by his mother like a man-child, right down to pre-cooked food when she goes on vacation (but it works, I suppose, to underscore the growing up he still has to do that he is so taken care of by the women in his life, even his daughter). My biggest battle as a reader with Dante probably came during the peak of his conflict with Marcia. Dante’s reasoning for me, didn’t involve as much self-reflection nor reflect as much growth as it could (but that just makes him human, maybe). I liked the portions where Marcia asserted her own story because too often she disappeared narratively into Dante’s. So I found Dante more problematic this read than before. Yet the way Brenda Lee Browne has written him, still couldn’t help but understand and root for him to get his shit together. By the end, he seems to be at the beginning of that.
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