“Brenton Brown” by Alex Wheatle

Cover of Brenton Brown by Alex WheatleBrenton Brown is a follow-up to Alex Wheatle’s famous debut Brixton Rock, which was set in the early 1980s. We catch up with the characters of that book about 25 years later in contemporary Britain, and those who read the first book will enjoy seeing how things turned out, especially with the title character Brenton, who fell in love with his half-sister Juliet. Things get a lot messier in this book, despite their best efforts to avoid it, as the child they had together is now grown-up and wants to know who her real father is (they never told her), and Juliet’s husband begins to suspect, and meanwhile Juliet is running for government and can’t have any scandal coming out in public. There’s a lot of tension, and I wouldn’t say you need to have read Brixton Rock to enjoy this story. The passages with old friends like Biscuit and Coffin Head won’t mean as much to new readers, but that’s a small point.

Coming back to the same characters at different points in history is something Alex Wheatle has done before, with characters from East of Acre Lane appearing both in an earlier time (in the book Island Songs) and a later one (The Dirty South). It’s a strategy that works well as it allows the reader not only to follow familiar characters but also to see what’s changed more broadly in Brixton and indeed Britain. In this book many of the features of the older Brixton have been replaced with swanky bars and cool cafes, but still beneath the surface a lot of the problems remain – young people with nowhere to turn, a government that doesn’t care, an undercurrent of violence and tension. As Brenton’s daughter Breanna puts it, talking to wannabe gangster Sean, “The only thing you have to offer is to show your crew how bad you are. Show them how street you are. Show them how much of a fucking soldier you are. That’s all you live for, innit?” Later Brenton himself comes into contact with Sean and sees that for him, it’s easier to pretend to be “bad” than to do the right thing, with all the obstacles to overcome.

The main focus of the story, though, is on Brenton and Juliet and their forbidden love for each other. Wheatle takes us inside the head of each character so that we know exactly what they’re feeling and thinking. It seems inevitable, then, that Brenton and Juliet will end up giving in to their passions (especially as the back cover tells us they will), but it takes a long time, and the tension builds up very effectively. There’s also some back story on Brenton’s time in children’s homes, and a good exploration of the question of how long someone can be ruled by a childhood tragedy. Several of the characters tell him to grow up and move on, get over it and stop using it as an excuse for his emotional failures, etc., but it’s clear that it’s not that simple, that his childhood has a great effect on him as a forty-something man. Brenton tries to get away from his past, both his painful childhood memories and his doomed love for Juliet, but even moving to Florida doesn’t really enable him to “start a new life” – he’s still ruled by the old.

I’ve read all of Wheatle’s books and this one didn’t disappoint. I’d still say East of Acre Lane is my favourite, mostly because of the fantastic dialogue (in this book, in fact, the dialogue sparked to life most for me in the banter between Brenton and his friends remembering the old days of the 1980s). But this one is also a good story well told, and I’d definitely recommend it.

This is a new book and the only other review I can find right now on the book blogs is at a book between friends. Let me know if you’ve written one or read one, and I’ll link to it as well.

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There are 12 comments

  1. I have never read anything by Alex Wheatle before but it sounds interesting, I even like the idea of two parts although I normaly don’t like sequels but in this case it seems justified as it is set 25 years later and one can see how Brixton and the people changed and evolved. The theme of childhood trauma and how to leave it behind is interesting as well. It can become an easy excuse but it is so difficult to let go. I like great dialogue that’s why I will definitely have a closer look at East of Acre Lane.

  2. Hi Celawerd, thanks for stopping by – yes it’s quite new so maybe that’s why you didn’t know it. I’d recommend it.

    Hi Caroline! I know what you mean – I am not a sequel fan either, but the large time gap worked well for me. It becomes a different book altogether, as the main characters were teenagers in the first book and approaching middle age in this one. Using the same characters and setting in a different generation is quite unusual (in my reading experience, anyway) and I thought it made for some interesting comparisons.

  3. @Geosi
    Hi Geosi,
    Yes, it’s a good one! If you do read it, please come back and let me know what you thought of it – I’d be interested.

  4. Nice review, Andrew! I got to know of Alex Wheatle only through your blog and he looks like a wonderful new discovery for me.

  5. Well, I haven’t even heard of this author. Your review has me wondering what reality I’ve been experiencing :). Sounds really good. Added to my wishlist. I often want to know what happened to a character that I made an impression on me. Not a sequel per se. More like an update. I think these books are doing just that.

  6. 🙂 I wouldn’t worry, Kinna – there are so many writers out there and we can’t follow all of them. From the number of great books you review on your blog, it sounds as if you’ve been experiencing an interesting reality anyway! You’re right, it’s not really a sequel when there’s such a big gap between them. An update is better. A good book does have you believing in the characters and wondering what happened to them after the final page, and it was satisfying in this case to come back and have those questions answered.

  7. I read Brixton Rock and only heard about this sequel a week ago 🙁 I so badly want to read it as the prequel was so captivating 😀 if you haven’t read it, it is worth it. If anyone has any links to a free pdf version or a free ebook, will you please let me know? Thank you 🙂

    1. Yeah, Brixton Rock is great! I think it’s my favourite book by him – either that or East of Acre Lane.

      Have you tried your local library? It’s quite a popular book, and Wheatle’s a well-known writer, so if you live in the UK I think the library would be likely to have a copy.

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