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Books Identity politics have been with us for longer than we might think

Category Unknown
by Koushik Banerjea
London Books £9.99

KOUSHIK BANERJEA’S fascinating second novel is a multilayered story of complex characters caught in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions as Britain moves into the era of Thatcherism and beyond.

Beginning in the late 1970s, it follows the fortunes of four intertwined young people: D and Conrad, who’ve grown up on the same south-east London council estate; Roxy, privately educated somewhere nearby; and Laura, a Spanish student recently arrived in England. 

White, black, brown and foreign respectively, they each move chippily into adulthood unsure of who or what they want to be, often disconnected from family, looking askance at the choices of others and fervently opposed to being pigeonholed, yet struggling to fix themselves with any kind of purpose in life. 

As the narrative stretches up to the financial crisis of 2008 and D, in particular, finds his path has led nowhere, we see that each has been looking for an identity rather than a place in society, driven by a shallow political and social landscape that puts rampant individualism above the simpler values of community and family. 

No-one gets off lightly in Banerjea’s darkly humorous hands, from the cynically deluded liberals who think they’re helping to change society to the four protagonists themselves, restlessly switching from one tack to another and never knowing whether to rebel or confirm, to stick or twist.

As he did in his superb debut novel, Another Kind of Concrete, Banerjea focuses on how people ought to work together but so often choose to snap at each other’s throats, dividing themselves along any lines possible while allowing those in charge to get away with murder. 

The four characters could be united in many things, but instead are distanced by tribalistic, superficial barriers — some of their own making and others, even the more obvious ones such as race and class, exacerbated by needless, self-destructive posturing. 

Through his magnificently eloquent prose, keen nose for dialogue and natural talent for intricate, modern-day storytelling, Banerjea seems to suggest that identify politics have been with us for longer than we might think — and that they’re gradually undermining everything that is good around us. 

Peter Mason

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