Paul Simon reviews a novel set in 1980s Handsworth, at the time of the riots.
This novel by Sharon Duggal of life in early-1980s working-class Birmingham during the time of inner-city rioting is defined by the greater and lesser griefs of the Agarwal family.Through their voices, the wonderful cussedness of a people and a community that will not be destroyed either by itself or by others speaks loud and clear.
The tone of loss is set early on, with father Mukesh Agarwal supping in a pub as the storms of a riot gather around him. In the mayhem of the confrontation, he helps to smother the flames engulfing a young man just before the ambulance arrives. A little later, Mukesh’s son Billy is knocked down and killed by a hurrying ambulance and, while Duggal is too good an author to suggest it’s the same vehicle, Mukesh’s devastation is complete.
As he slips into even greater alcoholic incoherence and joblessness, the other family members gravitate to different points on the compass of grief. The mother Usha, trying to wash away the stain of her loss, is obsessed with cleaning while son Kavi becomes totally nihilistic. Eldest daughter Nina escapes to university and commits the most heinous crime — she falls in love with a Pakistani man, while Kamela’s first experience of same-sex affection is shattered by violence and she retreats into the home. Anila, the youngest and most outspoken daughter, joins the dots between the family’s struggles and those of the wider community and becomes an activist in the Handsworth Youth Movement.
She, at least, confronts the wider griefs that threaten their community — the street thuggery of the still potent National Front and the vicious class struggle unleashed by the Thatcher administration’s deliberate destruction of manufacturing and the trade unions. But along with real solidarity lies betrayal and further violence and Anila must struggle to come to terms with a confusing and fallen world.
The novel accords all of these characters, with the exception of the declining Mukesh, the power of agency. Usha, no longer just a weeping mother figure, suddenly emerges as a catalyst for change. All, with the support of others, summon the energy to give voice to the community’s concerns and in doing so reunite the fraying bonds of working-class solidarity in new ways.
The Handsworth Times, utterly of a specific place and time but also universal in its themes, is a prose act of praise to the humanist spirit that will never succumb to fear and hatred. It is quite simply the most accomplished, complete and startlingly authentic novel I have read this year.
The Handsworth Times by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose at £8.99. This review first appeared in the Morning Star.