On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

on the come upIt’s hard producing a second piece of art when the first one has been so universally successful. People often talk of second book or second album pain. And after The Hate U Give, it’s no surprise that there was hype around Thomas’s second novel.

I try very hard to ignore hype – if possible I’d read every book without seeing the author’s name first, so that each one comes afresh rather than through Twitter or a publicist, but I live in the real world so obviously that’s not possible. Instead, I quite often try to see patterns in what I’m reading – how books sit together, how trends bear out, how what was written a few years ago and published today reflects on our society.

When I read On the Come Up, I was also reading The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (a book for adults), and I was pleasantly cheered to find parallels in the reading. Winton’s book is about a boy coming-of-age in the Australian outback, running away, and written in first person slang dialect. Thomas’s book is a coming-of-age by an up-and-coming rap artist set in the same fictional Garden Heights neighbourhood as Thomas’s first novel, The Hate U Give. The two books, Winton’s and Thomas’, are distinctively different and physically half a world away from each other, but both tell the story of invisible disadvantaged young people clamouring to be heard.

Bri lives with her mother, Jay, a recovering drug addict, and her older brother, and dreams of being a famous rapper like her father, long since shot dead in gang violence. Once again, Thomas revisits the injustices of growing up African American in the States, but the tone here pushes further than THUG, both in Bri’s first person voice and in plot. There’s much here to admire in Thomas’s characters and themes, but it’s the message behind the story that reaches furthest.

The book is firmly rooted in its background and neighbourhood – Bri and her family have to visit a food bank at Christmas after her mother is laid off (a result of riots in the neighbourhood causing lack of funds at her workplace), Bri attends a school where she’s frisked on the way in, her mother’s first thought on hearing a school emergency is that it’s a shooting, and Bri takes to colouring in her sneakers so that it’s not apparent that they aren’t the real deal. These are themes of poverty, violence and peer pressure that are universal in appeal – they apply equally to inner-city London kids as they do to black Americans, but there’s a sharp undercurrent of exploration of race that is most interesting to read and absorb.

One of the key strands is how Bri is seen by the world as opposed to who she is. An age-old trope in literature of appearance and reality, which becomes sharpened in Thomas’s insightful writing. Bri is labelled very much as the angry black woman (cf the Serena Williams trope) – when she pushes back against injustice she becomes labelled as aggressive, hoodlum, ghetto. Bri has the choice to own that label and act up to it – forging her career as a rapper by climbing into the label and delivering lyrics about guns, drugs and violence, playing to it and being the scary edgy black artist whose songs are downloaded for that reason, or whether she disowns the label and makes it by being who she really is inside, a more nuanced person than a mere label or type.

And by concentrating on Bri’s lyrics as a way for her to define herself, Thomas highlights the power of words. I’ve long argued that lyrics are yet another form of poetry – awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan may have been controversial, but shows I’m not alone in this thought – and Thomas goes the full way in equating the two – “Since hip-hop is poetry, your grades should never drop again.” Bri’s teacher lays on her.

Whether you go with this or not, it’s the power of language and words that sings through the page. From the slang Thomas uses (which again reminded me of Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut with its own very different but Australian words), to the cultural references, this is a book firmly rooted in its background that shows how powerful words can be – and how they can be twisted. Bri’s lyrics are listened to, used, and manipulated in ways she couldn’t have dreamed of when she composed them, but then she’s shown how words can be used for good too. This is about young people speaking out, about using their voices as a force for good, about unconventional poetry and the wonders it can work for freedom of the soul. It’s about labels and when we attribute them and how to lose them.

And above all, this is another reading eye-opener from Angie Thomas. There’s a touchingly instrumental sibling relationship, an interrogation of friendship and loyalty, and what lustful feelings can do to friendships and the bond of family.

This is an edgier read than THUG, it takes a harder line, and maybe for that reason it’s harder to fall in love with than THUG. But On the Come Up pulsates with passionate social commentary and poetry, and maybe Thomas feels that if the message isn’t totally getting through the first time, you have to shout a little louder the second. In a week in which children around the world are using their voices to push across a message, (YouthStrikeforClimate), this seems like apt reading material for them. Age 13+. You can buy it here.