Tuesday 10 March 2015

Before The Fire by Sarah Butler

It's June 2011. Stick and Mac are a couple of months shy of eighteen; summer's approaching and they're about to leave their north Manchester estate for the beaches of southern Spain.
But the night before they're planning to go, Mac ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victim of a random knife attack, and suddenly Stick's going nowhere.
His mum doesn't want him to leave the house; his dad's desperate to be his best friend; and his nan's boyfriend keeps telling him Mac's doing just fine in the spirit world.
Then he meets J and she might just be everything he needs. Except she's a firebrand with a grudge against the police, and the August riots are just around the corner... 

Before the Fire by Sarah Butler is published by Picador (Pan Macmillan) on 12 March 2015 and is the author's second novel. I reviewed her first book; Ten Things I've Learnt About Love, here on Random Things back in January 2013.

Before The Fire was inspired by the UK riots of 2011, and the story takes place over the months just prior to the riots in August of that year.

There were a variety of responses to the riots that summer. In Parliament, David Cameron said: The whole country has been shocked by the most appalling scenes of people looting, violence, vandalising and thieving. It is criminality, pure and simple - and there is absolutely no excuse for it. 

Whilst in the Guardian, Seumas Milne wrote: While bankers have publicly looted the country's wealth and got away with it, it's not hard to see why those who are locked out of the gravy train might think they were entitled to help themselves to a mobile phone.

Stick and Mac; two seventeen-year-old boys from a run-down Manchester estate. Neither of them have a father living at home, both of them are determined to escape their dreary surroundings. They are going to drive to Spain, in Stick's old Ford. They will drive across Europe, so what if it's only two hours by plane? They will drive, that way they will see more places. Stick has never seen the sea.

Their cases are packed. They have their Euros. Their mothers are worried but know that they have to let them go. Their going away party is planned. Mac, the joker, wants to dress up. Coconut shell bras, tropical print shirts and sunglasses on, they spend what should be their last Manchester evening in a bar with a sticky carpet getting drunker and drunker. When Mac decides that it is time to leave, Stick is otherwise occupied, in the toilets with a girl wearing a blue sequinned top.

That blue sequinned top will haunt Mac for the rest of his days.  Mac gets into a spot of bother on the bus during his journey home and never arrives. Stick doesn't see Mac again.

Stick is distraught, and angry and filled with grief and guilt and loss. He pushes his family away, he gets drunk, takes drugs, he just wants Mac to come back.

When Mac meets J, with her shocking bright hair and the ability to land a good punch, he is intrigued. He sees someone who is like him, who understands, and who will let him talk, and explain.

Before The Fire was inspired by the riots, but isn't really about the riots. It is a story that is exquisitely written, about rage and grief, and about modern day living. Stick is not the nicest of lads, he's uncouth, he's self-centred, he drinks too much, takes drugs and thinks about sex quite a lot. However, he is pretty realistic, he's seventeen, he's out of work, he lives with a mother who has issues of her own, his dad has a new family, his sister died in a fire and now his best mate is gone.

Sarah Butler's writing is bold and daring. Her ability to recreate the mind of a young man is stunning, and despite the horror of the riots, she enables the reader to empathise with the rioters. She has an understanding of the whys and the hows, without condoning what happened.

This novel is gritty and very near to the knuckle. Some readers may be shocked by the language, by the lifestyle choices of some of the characters. This is brutally honest writing and whilst it exposes the seedier side of life, it is also very beautiful. Whilst the language may be coarse, the message is true and clear, the exploration of the devastation of grief and loss on family and on friendship groups is precise and striking.

Before The Fire is a clever, modern, poetic novel. It is complex, exploring issues that are often glossed over, with grace and ease.

I am very impressed by Sarah Butler's writing, she is an author that I am sure will keep us entertained for years to come.

My thanks to Francesca Main from Picador/Pan Macmillan who continues to feed my book appetite with her stunning choices.

Sarah Butler lives in Manchester and runs a consultancy which develops literature and arts projects that explore and question our relationship to place. 

She has been writer in residence on the Central Line, the Greenwich Peninsula, and at Great Ormond Street Hospital, and has taught creative writing for the British Council in Kuala Lumpur. 

Ten Things I've Learnt About Love was her first novel, and was published in twelve languages around the world. 

Find out more about Sarah's writing at www.sarahbutler.org.uk
Follow her on Twitter @SarahButler100

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