The tone is set for the rest of the novel. Bleakness, lack of hope, pointless violence, misdirected anger, innocent victims. The setting is Meadow Well council estate in North-East England in the early 1990s, site of a real-life riot which Crow fictionalises in this debut novel.
One interesting technique in the book is the way that characters are drawn almost with equal weight. There is a central character, Jack, and the main narrative is driven by the question of whether he’ll turn his life around after his recent prison release or get sucked back into crime. But there’s also an array of other characters who get quite a bit of space on the page. And even passers-by or shop-owners are given names, backgrounds, miniature stories of their own.
It’s quite unusual in the way it’s done – almost as if Crow is trying to make the estate itself into a character by describing all the individuals in it. The strength of this approach is that there are no cardboard cutout characters. Everyone in the book is three-dimensional and believable. The downside, for me, was that sometimes the story lacked focus. You end up with a large cast of characters and it can be hard to remember who Sean and Dean are, or Alex and Ashley and Johnny and Paul…
Generally in a novel there’s an expectation that characters are introduced for a reason. When they aren’t, it leaves you feeling a bit let down. Nathalie, for example, gets a lot of time and attention, but her impact on Jack’s life is not as big as I thought it would be. In my opinion the novel would have worked better if it had focused more sharply on Jack’s story, not the story of the whole estate. Still, as I said it was an interesting approach, and in some ways it worked.
Overall I enjoyed the book and thought the writing, though uneven in places, was very lively and fresh. Matthew Crow is still only 22 and I think Ashes is a promising debut.