Just a Small Town by Paul Linggood
A small town that could be anywhere: industry in decline, streets in decay, many have left, while those left behind take short-term joy in drugs. Four young people are among the left behind. Alex consumes heroin to escape his abusive father. Jim hides from guilt after the death of the friend he didn’t save. Chelsi’s brother killed a local boy, and ostracism pushes her towards a rival gang, prostitution and loneliness. Danny is a hustler but needs protection from the drug gang that supplies him. Can any of them survive the addiction, gang life, isolation and manipulation? Their small town could be anywhere.
This powerful and disturbing story captures just how easy it is for young people who are, for whatever reasons, feeling marginalised by society, finding it hard to believe in a better future or trying to cope with personal crises, to be sucked into a world of drugs, gangs and criminality. It demonstrates how easy it is for leaders of gangs to groom vulnerable teenagers with promises of an escape from their frustrations, anxieties and despair then, once the youngsters become entrenched in an even darker world, to intimidate and control them, making it very difficult for them to find an escape from its grip.
The author’s vivid portrayals of each of his characters shows how they were drawn ever-deeper into this stranglehold of drugs, addiction, gang-culture and escalating violence. I quickly felt immersed in, and at times almost overwhelmed by, the challenges they faced and their daily struggles to survive a dangerous and hostile environment – I soon found myself caring for them and fearing for them in equal measure. These evocative descriptions of their experiences encapsulated how feeling alienated, whether as an individual or as a community, creates conditions which can so easily lead to a state of anomie. This makes ruthless manipulation, by those who appear to be offering something more hopeful, so much easier. The consequential downward spiral and the despair engendered combine, making the prospect of escape feel increasingly impossible. There were many moments when I was reading when I found myself railing against the all too common political and economic decision-making which results in communities being “forgotten” and left feeling marginalised.
The graphic accounts of the characters’ experiences of family breakdown, addiction, deaths caused by overdoses or suicide, homelessness, prostitution, single-parenthood, criminal activity, imprisonment, intimidation etc, meant that I frequently found this “warts and all” debut novel from Paul Linggood rather harrowing to read. I think this was mainly because the descriptions always felt so powerfully authentic, something which is hardly surprising given his personal experience of being an ex-gang member and of having faced some similar challenges as he moved through his mid-teens into young adulthood. The hard-won triumph of hope over despair, the promise of a better future for one of his characters as the novel ends, feels equally authentic because this is what has happened for him. In his acknowledgements he thanks all the people who have offered their love, support and encouragement to help him turn his life around. I finished this story feeling full of admiration for him, not only for how determined he must have been to embark on this journey, but also for using his experiences to write this moving and impressive debut novel.
Although targeted at the YA market (it should be included in all school libraries!) it offers people of any age some important insights into the challenges so many young people face and, with its wide-ranging, topical themes, it would be an excellent choice for book groups.
With thanks to Nudge/NB for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 4
Group read: 5
Hookline Books 8th September 2020
ISBN: 978-1-9464103-9-8 Paperback