This was a purchase from my first visit to Round Table Books in Brixton, South London. Hot off the press in June this year, its fresh, powerful cover design called me to the shelf. Now, we all know it’s a bold, heroic deed to open an independent bookshop, and a new children’s bookshop is even more worth celebrating. But this place, nestled in Brixton Village’s covered market, among bars, boutiques and cafes, is extra special. An avowedly inclusive enterprise, it specialises in books with black, Asian or minority ethnic protagonists. It would be better to say, it champions them: when I visited, on the hottest day of the year, the bookseller’s wide-ranging knowledge was impressive; her enthusiasm for titles new and established spread to me like wildfire. This place may be new, but it has a true, blazing bookshop spirit.
There’s a wealth of great titles for them to offer, too. Alongside Shukla, there were British and American names, and a South African title published by Pushkin: from the anarchic fun of Little Omar’s adventures (by Zanib Mian) to the new Carnegie winner, YA verse novel The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. These are books of now – while I read about a Far Right march in The Boxer, Tommy Robinson supporters raged and ranted on my Twitter feed – for obvious reasons. It also creates an air of excitement, this showcase of contemporary talent.
Hard for me to believe that Acevedo is the first person of colour to win the Carnegie, but then, I’ve spent my life not noticing the ethnicity of children’s book characters, simply because I always saw myself reflected back. There have always been exceptions – I was sending Malorie Blackman fan letters when I was ten – but perhaps the success of a few names helped me imagine that things were more balanced – certainly more than the meagre 4% of published children’s books that feature BAME characters. Change has begun, but it’s slow, and everyone involved in children’s reading needs to help propel things forward.
Shukla’s first YA novel, Run, Riot, demonstrated what readers have been missing out on all this time. Primarily a real-time, cat-and-mouse thriller in a Bristol tower-block, it’s also a blast of accusation against the politicians, businessmen and law-enforcers managing social housing for their own ends. Shukla didn’t have to remove his characters to a fantasy world or dystopian future: all the elements of compelling drama, from despicable villains to an intricate setting to the call of home and family, relate intrinsically to one another in this place and time. It’s also, appropriately for YA, a novel about the power of young people in a climate of cynical corruption. The scandal of Grenfell Tower shadows the whole novel, but in fiction the material of our lives can be worked into tales of catharsis and hope.
The Boxer alters the focus from a group of friends to just one young man, and the story it tells is one of isolation and learning to ‘take up space’. To a great extent, it’s a quieter novel than its predecessor: no helicopters hovering overhead, no murders in the underpass or political conspiracies. The acute moments of drama in this novel happen on lonely station platforms – where Sunny is targeted, abused and assaulted by racist thugs – and in quiet streets, family dinners, hospice waiting rooms. And the boxing gym, of course – but at times, that’s the safest place for Sunny, where he spars with his trainer, or new friend Keir. Some of the most disturbing scenes are those when we see Sunny internalising the hatred of that initial assault; for all that Sunny has friends who love him, this is a dark, psychological novel.
Brilliant momentum is achieved by weaving his journey to self-empowerment with the ten bouts of a life-changing boxing match. Shukla matches a sober realist style with stylish cinematic switches of narrative, and each of his YA novels is a compulsive read. This weaving in time reflects The Boxer’s interest in its protagonist’s headspace: we can see how the narrative of Sunny’s training repeats itself in microcosm as an exchange of feints, footwork, and sucker-punches in his match with Keir; likewise, the dynamic of that final fight runs through the grain of the whole novel. It makes for an exciting and satisfying whole.
The Boxer is not the first YA novel to show a young male protagonist discovering his identity through competitive sport. I found the subject matter of The Boxer the most interesting of the genre: this is not just a novel about building self-respect, but about understanding confrontation, and belief in transformation. Shukla sensitively but directly engages with the current climate of hate in the UK: here, the novel reaches its most frightening but also, surprisingly, some of its most poignant moments. Like Run, Riot, little needs to be contrived to produce a narrative of brilliant drama, and as a result it is absolutely convincing.
I have one fault with the novel, and it’s one I feel a bit stingy about. After all, it is brilliant of Shukla to make Sunny a young gay man, and one for whom sexuality is just a facet of his life, not another battle to overcome. Sunny’s parents and friends hardly mention it – and this feels like a revelation for YA. Shukla even implies that Sunny’s sexuality is tacitly accepted by his sparring partner, Keir, but this feels disingenuous to me. Even in these more enlightened times, there’s no way the novel’s themes of male friendship, shame and hatred would not be in some way inflected with Sunny’s queerness. It almost feels as if a further subplot has been lifted out of the book to clarify the narrative, but if so it endures as a notable absence: at most, a lost opportunity. Or maybe I missed something; after all, Shukla references Thomas Page McBee’s memoir of boxing and transgender identity, Amateur, in his acknowledgements.
But perhaps Sunny’s story is simply not finished yet. There are subtle links back to characters in Run, Riot; perhaps Shukla is going to return to this community to tell its stories in further novels. I certainly hope Shukla will continue to produce YA: his balance of thrills and quiet human stories, sprawling riots and intense intimacy, contemporary violence and nigh-on mythic redemption are precisely what we all need right now.