Kettle review: Feral Youth by Polly Courtney

Feral Youth tells the story of 15-year-old Alesha, a Caribbean girl that was unlucky enough to be born into extremely poor and harsh environments in Peckham.

Feral Youth tells the story of 15-year-old Alesha, a Caribbean girl that was unlucky enough to be born into extremely poor and harsh environments in Peckham. Set in south London in the build-up to the riots of 2011, Alesha’s story painfully depicts the disenfranchisement of a complete generation of teenagers—a particularly grim matter that we normally tend to keep at a similar safe distance as these aggressive youngsters themselves.

Off course, one is likely to have some reservations about the fact that the novel was written by a white and well-off author like Polly Courtney. But just like in some of her previous work, which included some arduous themes such as sexism, racism, “lads’ mag” culture and the wealth divide, Courtney tackles the issue of the frustrations that led to the summer riots in a well-considered, balanced way.

A slightly uncomfortable read at times

While at times it can be a slightly uncomfortable read, Feral Youth brilliantly throws away with any short sighted prejudices, it presents the reader with an insider’s perspective and raises awareness of the complexity of this seemingly hopeless social situation. Moreover, Courtney brings this all together in a hugely engaging writing style. While the 15-year-old protagonist at first may seem obnoxious and aggressive, the more you get to see things from her perspective, it becomes more and more obvious and understandable how she got to be like that. Instead of disliking her, the reader quickly starts to feel very sorry for her.

The desperation and utter hopelessness of Alesha’s situation is tangible throughout the entire book. With nowhere to go, no one who cares for her and no hopes for the future, her frustrations are completely understandable. When at one point her old piano teacher Miss Merfield starts to try and help Alesha, it becomes eerily clear how hard it is for others to truly comprehend the bleakness of the outlooks of a girl like her. 

‘Miss Merfield just looks at me blankly. ‘The point is you getting a job,’ she says.

I feel the anger build up inside again. She don’t get it. She don’t get what it’s like to be me. Kicked out of school, batted from place to place, doors slammed in my face – she should try spending a day in my shoes. You can’t expect good things to come out when you got only the wrong things going in. I ain’t got no qualifications. I ain’t gonna get no job. I ain’t gonna be like Miss Merfield and her fancy friends. Ain’t no point in even trying.’

A voice to frustrated youth

Polly wrote Feral Youth ‘to give a voice to the thousands of frustrated youths who, like Alesha, feel marginalised and ignored by the rest of society,’ and in this she succeeded. Feral Youth explores the real causes of the 2011 riots and makes the reader realise that the way society dealt with these uproars back then hasn’t really tackled the core of the problem.

It might be just a matter of time that further unrest will happen as long as we keep ignoring the unjust circumstances these disenfranchised youths are in.

What do you think of Feral Youth? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.