First, a big thank you to the Amazon Vine program, and also Simon and Schuster, who sent me a second, finished copy of this book.
Forest Gate begins with a terrible act: two teenage boys decide between themselves to commit suicide by jumping off of two towers. One, Ashvin, succeeds; the other, James, is horribly injured but survives. Ashvin and his sister Meina are refugees from Somalia, which the author notes in an interview is "one of the few countries in the world that is officially ungovernable." (209) Their parents were killed in the ongoing civil wars in that country, and they were brought to London by their benefactor, Mr. Bloom, a friend of Ashvin & Meina's parents. James and Meina are brought together after Ashvin's death, and the story is told from their alternating points of view.
And what an eye-opening, character-driven story it is. James, who was poor and black and lived in council estates constantly felt as if the rest of the world was judging him solely by those parameters. His mother was a crack addict, his father was dead, and his brothers were all major known drug dealers. James did not want to end up in the same boat, but understood that escape was probably highly unlikely. Before his death, Ashvin came to realize that the wars that he had escaped from in Somalia were still being played out in different forms on the streets of London via the gangs of immigrants and refugees who had come there. And Meina, who had lived a horrible life in Somalia after the death of her parents (married off to six husbands before she was even in her teens), has her own need to escape, but wonders if she ever can. Meeting after Ashvin's death, both James and Meina are drawn to each other to begin their own collective and individual healing processes.
This book is one of those stories that knock you out of your comfort zone and force you to take a good look at what's happening in the world around you. We are so complacent about civil wars in Africa, because they're across the world from us and our entire experience may be just a news story on television once in a while. We don't really think about the consequences of these conflicts that bring immigrants seeking refuge and asylum to other parts of the world, where they can be lifted out of the horror of wars, but often form into cultural "gangs" and continue the cycle of bloodshed and violence against each other. And truthfully, even if we mean well, we cannot possibly understand life in a situation where there is little hope for change or betterment or escape, where we are forced to stay where we are because of the color of our skin or our ethnicity. And that's why Forest Gate is so powerful. It makes you aware, even if only on the slightest level, that all of these things exist in the world. I hope many people read this book -- it's got a very deep message that applies to everyone. Akinti is a talented writer, his characters come alive on the page, and what's more, he has personal experience of what he's written. I liked it and recommend it, with the caveat that it's very graphically violent in a few places. There aren't a lot of warm fuzzy moments in this book -- it is bleak, yet the reader is left with the sense that perhaps, just perhaps, these two people can start all over again.