Friday 24 January 2014

Boxer Handsome by Anna Whitwham

Bold, ballsy and blood-spattered: a fierce debut about boxer boys in the East End of London, from a major new talent 
Boxing runs in Bobby's blood. His Irish dad was a boxer. So was his Jewish grandfather. Yanked up by their collars at Clapton Bow Boys Club, taught how to box and stay out of trouble. 
So Bobby knows he shouldn't be messing in street brawls a week before his big fight with Connor 'the Gypsy Boy', an Irish traveller from around the way. They're fighting over Theresa: a traveller girl with Connor's name all over her. But Bobby's handsome, like his dad; boxer handsome. 
Set against the backdrop of contemporary East-End London, Boxer Handsome is an unsung hymn to tribal boxing history and to an angry and austere Britain, a community up against itself, 'all fighting a corner; all fighting for space. All up for a fight.' 
For Bobby, the ring is everywhere and he can't afford to lose.

Boxer Handsome was published by Chatto & Windus on 16 January 2014 and is Anna Whitwham's debut novel.

The story opens violently with a fight scene that is so descriptive that it will make you wince.  Bobby and Connor are fighting over a girl; Theresa, a traveller girl who totters on her high heels from lad to lad.

Bobby is rough, he's violent, crass and doesn't really play by the rules.  Bobby is also very good looking - he's Boxer Handsome.

Bobby and Connor are due to fight each other in the ring, but they come to blows on the riverbank just a week before fight day.  This is a brutal, no-holds barred fight - bare-knuckles and blood and although this is about who 'owns' Theresa - the history between Bobby and Connor goes way back.   Their families have always been connected, by boxing and by family relationship.  The lads grew up together and Bobby's father Joe was a great boxer in his day, hard to believe when looking at the broken man destroyed by years of alchohol abuse that Joe is today.

When Bobby meets Chloe, just after the riverbank fight, he is fascinated by this girl who is so different from Theresa and the other girls he grew up with.  Taking Chloe out on a first date, only kissing her, not expecting the rough sex that he gets with Theresa, Bobby sees a possibility, a different way of life.  Sadly, and shockingly Bobby can't deal with this relationship at all - the strength of the violence within him leads to another brutal and bloody chapter in his life.

Anna Whitwham based her story on the life of her grandfather who fought at the Crown and Manor Boys Club in the east end of London in the 1920s.    There is an overwhelming sense of brooding, dirt and passion within this story - the violence is stark and brutal and the characters appear very simple, but are in fact multi-layered with a multitude of long-lasting historical issues festering away inside them.  Their answer to most things is to deal with it with their fists.

This is not the east end as portrayed in the soap opera, with laughter and jokes and songs down the pub. This is an area that reeks of danger, with family feuds that have become ingrained in social history, with prejudice and fists and a cast of characters who because of  their flaws and sadness are realistic.

Anna Whitwham writes with authority, passion and depth.  Boxer Handsome is a modern-day story that deals with age-old problems and issues.  It is brutal and violent and explodes with language and fear but it is also has a sensitivity to it that gives the characters a vulnerability and it is this that made me fall just a little in love with Bobby - a guy who I'd probably run a mile from if I met him in real life.

Anna Whitwham was born in 1981 in London, where she still lives. She has studied Drama and English at University of California, Los Angeles and Queens University, Belfast. She is currently completing her Creative Writing PhD with the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion at Royal Holloway, where she also lectures.Boxer Handsome is her first novel.

Follow her on Twitter @Anna_Whitwham

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