:: Article

Know You Got Soul

“I’ve got your name on my face / Your face on my mind baby / Come baby, come / Graffiti my soul”

We are the New Romantics, Niven Govinden‘s debut novel, did a nice line in sleazy, Euro-trash glamour. For Graffiti My Soul, Govinden tones it down at little, and presents instead a cool riff on teenage life in Surrey, a place “where nothing bad ever happens,” “where you get double everything on a plate.” Govinden cleverly nails that universal, youthful ennui, and though English in setting, it could be any suburban, dead-beat town: “too many semis on top of each other…This place is no Mecca for healing. No comfort to be had in pebble-dashing and crazy paving” and “People love shopping in this town. You never see anyone on the high street or leaving the mall without a carrier bag.”

Veerapen Prendrapen, “the only kosher Tamil in Surrey,” is struggling to come to terms with the death of his sometime-girlfriend Moon. Veerapen, an athlete of note, is doubly cursed by being half-Tamil, half-Jew in the “ethnic desert that is North East Surrey,” and explains it thus: “We were the only spot of beige in an area that was blindingly white…then Dad ran off, and I was the only brown spot left. It’s the kind of upbringing that’s meant to turn you into a radical black panther, or, in my case, an enlightened Jew-Tamil Tiger. But I’m dead inside, man, blunted by TV, and girls, and the promise of what I can do when I slip on my running shoes, and the sniff of freshly burning weed at five paces. I got no energy left to be all radical, no time left for brotherhood — maybe for a kid who’s grown up the way I did, but not for some be-pleasing-you-sir who’s just stepped off the boat. They mean nothing to me. It might sound rough, but that’s just how it is.”

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For kicks, the kids happy slap, punk adults and capture the action on their mobile phones — “Evidence, good photographic evidence that you can carry around on your phone, is the new Top Trumps. Everyone’s doing it.” That, a bit of drinking, some MSN time, alongside a mild dose of the old ultra-violence (a “six-boot chorus”) passes the day. “I’m a good boy really,” Veerapen says, “but I won’t lie about it; I like the street violence around here. It’s probably one of the reasons I’ll never move out of Surrey.”

JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, the ultimate pinnacle of teen angst, saw adults as phoneys; Veerapen just sees them as past it: “Mate, you’re over the age of twenty, forget it! Unless you can buy us a proper drink, or find us someone who sells us decent weed, you’re redundant. Stay out of our faces and we’ll stay out of yours, yeah?”

Govinden’s knack for dialogue is a excellent, “fo’ shizzle,” and it’s easy to see why he has drawn comparisons to Hanif Kureishi, particularly Kureishi’s coming-of-age stories. Govinden painstakingly constructs the narrative to retell events in flashback (no surprise as Govinden studied film-making) and intricately involves the reader in the characters’ lives (no mean feat, considering this is fifteen year olds he is writing about). Never once does he slip into sentimentalism, nor is he glib or hysterical in dealing with some of the issues (for example, Casey, Veerapen’s trainer is “kiddie fiddler”). What is disappointing is that the way we find out about Moon’s death: a page and a bit of bullet-points. What should have been a cataclysmic moment, feels like (to use one of his own analogies) a mobile phone battery “worked to its last nerve” and out of juice, a cheat that tarnishes Govinden’s otherwise excellent txt Romeo and Juliet.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika and is Comics Co-Editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 15th, 2007.