For a moment, I saw inside Mum’s head. A pretty blonde girl had died. And me, I was the Hackney youth with the gangboy brother. The papers would be quick to pick up on it, probably scanning Facebook for a photo already. Drug-Toting Gangboy ‘Kills’ Innocent Girl, with pictures of us both underneath for compare and contrast.
Sixteen-year-old Marlon Sunday is, by his own admission, ‘Not cool enough, not clever enough, not street boy enough for anyone to take notice.’ He reads non-fiction about the brain and listens to old funk records. When Sonya Wilson, seventeen, blonde, gorgeous, comes knocking at his door, he’s not asking why, he’s down the local fair taking ecstacy with her and riding the ghost train, despite all his promises to his mum that he’d stay home, work hard and definitely not find himself in the sort of trouble his older brother Andre did.
Things take a turn for the worst when Sonya gets on the ghost train alive but is dead before they’ve reached the other end of the track. Not only that but just before they embarked, she convinced Marlon to pocket her stash of pills.
Marlon’s convinced that the boys who spoke to Sonya a few minutes before her death have something to do with all of this. When he goes to visit her grandmother and give his condolences, he leaves with Sonya’s Blackberry. Soon he’s getting calls about Mr Orange and, despite his mum’s best efforts, finds himself having to finish something his brother Andre appears to have started.
Marlon’s best friend Tish is a brilliant, straight-talking counterpoint to him. She takes no shit and makes sure people know it.
‘Look what that girl dropped you in!’ Tish’s eyes were wide and furious. ‘All this crap landing at you mum’s house, just because you were following your dick…’
But this isn’t really about Sonya, she’s as much a victim as Marlon.
Lawrence takes the reader into the ganglands of South London, to the young men and women who control their territory through drugs, knives, guns and fear. Where loyalty is everything and betrayal comes with the highest price.
Three things about the novel are particularly impressive: the first is the plotting. I’m not a fan of the ‘I couldn’t put it down’ cliché but every chapter ends at a point that makes you desperate to continue reading. I left the house late for work and to meet friends; I propped up my eyelids with matchsticks and kept reading long after I should’ve been asleep.
The second is the way in which Lawrence shows how easy it is for a kid from a comfortable background to be drawn into gang culture. Marlon has a stable home life – his mum and her long-term partner – a good friend in Tish, he does okay at school and yet his loyalty to the people in his life and his desire to protect them is exactly what lures him in.
Thirdly, and connected to the previous point, Lawrence explores the part class plays; how structural inequality and poverty exacerbates gang-related crime.
After Tayz was arrested, the police raided his Mum’s flat and found money, weed, knives, a gun. She lost her home and D-Ice was kicked out.
Jesus, if me, Mum and Andre had been in a council place, that could have been us. Who knew what Andre used to have in his room? But we weren’t in the middle of an estate, we were here, in this road, with tidy hedges and Tesco deliveries and the bus going up and down.
Orangeboy is a fantastic book. Gripping, smart and a nuanced portrait of a world that’s easily open to stereotyping. If I was still teaching in secondary schools, I’d be pushing it into the hands of every kid I came across.
Orangeboy is on the longlist for the Jhalak Prize; I’d be delighted if it makes the shortlist on the 6th February.