On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

I was excited to read this, especially since I think I’m the only person on the planet who missed out on The Hate U Give last year. Others have been looking forward to this too, it placed sixth in my list of the 10 Most Anticipated Novels of 2019.

This was a rare foray into Young Adult fiction for me, and it was worth a diversion from my usual reading material. The novel blends teenage angst with heavy social commentary. This takes some getting into, as the main character (Bri) has a distinctive voice which needs time to settle, but the payoff is a rounded exploration of a huge variety of themes. This excerpt is long, but it shows the shifting focus I’m referring to:

The Garden passes by my window. Older folks water their flowers or bring out their trash cans. A couple of cars blast music on high. Seems normal, but things haven’t been the same since the riots. The neighbourhood doesn’t feel nearly as safe. Not that the Garden was ever a utopia, hell no, but before I only worried about GDs and Crowns. Now I gotta worry about the cops too? Yeah, people get killed around here, and nah, it’s not always by the police, but Jay says this was like having a stranger come in your house, steal one of your kids, and blame you for it because your family was dysfunctional, while the whole world judges you for being upset.

Zane, a senior with a nose ring, gets on the bus. He’s stuck-up as hell. Sonny says Zane thinks he’s fine, but Sonny and I also agree that he is fine. It’s an internal struggle, being annoyed by his ass and mesmerized by his face.

And if I’m real, being mesmerized by his ass. Boy’s got a donk.

Angie Thomas, On The Come Up, p55

This equal status for serious political unrest and high school problems makes the novel addictive and frustrating. It means that Bri is a deep and rounded character who it’s easy to invest in, but that makes it even more annoying when she acts irrationally or makes a choice that you as a reader don’t agree with.

I want to be clear that when I say “annoying” or “frustrating”, I don’t mean “bad”. It’s one heck of a thing to keep the reader in the protagonist’s corner even when they’re acting up. I was so sold on this story and these characters, I was willing to accept or even justify Bri’s actions no matter how out of line she was being.

Outside of Bri, there’s a cast of complex characters who can equally affect a reader’s mood. People you warm to can turn out to be self-serving or obnoxious, others who seem to be a negative influence at first demonstrate heart and sincerity. The book is emotionally turbulent and uses that to accommodate a busy plot which covers fame, music, ambition, prejudice, solidarity, activism, friendship, family and about a dozen other big-ticket themes.

There’s a lot going on here, but it’s never overwhelming or too stretched. This stuff all just comes up in the few months of Bri’s life that the novel covers. It’s an enticingly complex novel.

Covers a huge variety of topics in some interesting ways, whilst never losing its human touch. Classified as Young Adult fiction, and hopefully that just expands rather than limits its audience.

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