Book Review | Crossfire by Malorie Blackman

We’re back in a universe where the light-skinned Noughts have historically been second-class citizens to the dark-skinned Crosses. Three decades after the first book in the series (and one of my all-time favourite reads), society has changed dramatically. There is now a Nought Prime Minister – something that would have been unthinkable in the past. But that past is never too far in the rear-view mirror, and longstanding societal divisions and deep-rooted prejudices simmer under the surface of a seemingly integrated world.

‘That was just taken as the default position. It was as if the rest of us who were WAME – white and mixed-ethnic – were aberrations… Crosses were one group and everyone else got lumped into the WAME category like we were all one, big, homogenous mass and not worthy of distinct categorization.’

I love the way that Malorie Blackman taps into what’s going on in our modern-day society and translates that – and flips the script – into the world on her pages. She brings to the fore a range of topical issues – from media portrayals of people with certain melanin levels to the Windrush scandal. Though in this universe, rather than Brits of Afro-Caribbean descent being deported to the Caribbean, Nought citizens are being sent back to ‘the nearest Fenno-Skandian country’.

‘The bad publicity didn’t stop them booting out of the country Noughts who were elderly and disabled, Nought criminals, Noughts too ill to work and all those Noughts who didn’t have the proper paperwork to prove they weren’t illegal immigrants. Never mind that most of the Noughts kicked out of the country had been born here or had come to Albion when they were infants. Never mind that they had worked and paid taxes and fought for their country. That was no longer good enough.’

Now the Nought Prime Minister, Tobey Durbridge, is being framed for a murder he swears he didn’t commit. The one person he believes can help him is Callie-Rose, who readers will remember from previous books as our strong female lead who is now a high-powered lawyer. But asking Callie-Rose for help means having to reflect on their shared history – a history we learn about through deftly-handled jumps back in time to their school days. Tobey’s rise to power has also lead to inevitable upsets and collateral damage, and this time, it’s two teenagers – Libby and Troy – who are caught in the crossfire.

Blackman is a razor-sharp writer with her finger on the pulse. Her characters are real and three-dimensional, and relatable for both teens and adults alike. The stakes are high in this novel – political drama, thriller, romance – and Blackman juggles the themes well whilst making the writing and plot accessible. The ending for me really let the story down – rather than developing the script into a longer novel, we end on an abrupt cliffhanger – baiting the reader, no doubt, to buy the next book in the series. Whilst I feel that this was a commercial decision, rather than a literary one, it did still have an impact on how I feel about the novel. Will I still read the next instalment? Probably – it’s just too hard to resist.

Book Review | An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds living in Atlanta. Roy is charming, proud, and stubborn, Celestial his independent, artistic, talented wife. Their marriage is still very much in its infancy when something life-altering happens. While staying in the fictional town of Eloe, Louisiana, visiting Celestials’ parents, Roy will be accused of raping a woman in a hotel room – a crime he did not commit.

‘You know what they say: if you go five miles out of Atlanta proper, you end up in Georgia.’

African-American men are incarcerated at a vastly disproportionate rate in the United States, and Roy’s imprisonment and 12-year sentence show that even being HBCU-educated, articulate and holding a good job – the poster boy for upward mobility – won’t save you from the gross injustices of the American justice system.

‘I have one thing to say to you, as a black man: Roy is a hostage of the state. He is a victim of America.’

But the way in which Roy’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment transpires is not dwelled upon in the narrative: it almost seems like the inevitable, an inescapable fate in contemporary America. This isn’t a courtroom drama or an overt polemic. Instead, what follows is first-person accounts from Roy, Celestial and Celestial’s old friend Andre, who are all struggling to navigate this new reality.

We also witness the slow disintegration of the couple’s communication through their letters. The lost art of letter-writing is still very much alive between incarcerated persons and their loved ones who have no access to modern communication, and in this case they provide documentation of deep emotional turmoil and the fraying of the ties that bind. Roy’s life is suspended, but Celestial’s must go on: she becomes a successful artist and grows ever closer to Andre. Time waits for no man, and Roy finds that the world – and his place within it – changes irrevocably.

‘Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator. I still look back on that night, although not as often as I once did. How long can you live with your face twisted over your shoulder?’

A searching, intimate and timely (and yet also somehow timeless), portrait of a marriage, Jones explores the fractures in communication and the pressures on modern-day marriage. I would have liked to have read more about Roy’s conviction and to have had that side of the novel explored in some more detail, but I can see why Jones wanted to focus on the wrongful imprisonment as the catalyst, rather than the central focus of the narrative. It is lyrically written without being florid, and the complex characters make it hard to apportion blame or pick sides. It’s a truthful and emotional look at the modern-day realities of American relationships and the forces that shape us.