Tabloid Characters in Flimsy East End
There is a sinister sort of charm in the illustrious and at times mythological history of London’s East End. Images of cockneys, old-school gangsters, and honest, working-class citizens spring to mind. The film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and acclaimed books like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane offer a more modern view of this rugged, but dynamic part of the city.
It’s charm and mythology that Matthew d’Ancona aims to capture in his first novel Going East. While the author touches on the spirit of what one would (stereo)typically think of the East End, he doesn’t dig deep enough to uncover the vibrancy and eclecticism of the landscape or its characters.
Going East features a successful, young workaholic named Mia Taylor. In the opening chapter, we meet Mia’s family. The Taylors are beautiful, loving, well-respected, close-knit, happy, successful, rich. They are celebrating Mia’s brother’s thirtieth with a picnic in the park. They play cricket on the green, nibble on beluga and gentleman’s relish, and gulp back Krug like it’s root beer. They call each other cute short forms of their names: Mia is Mi, her sisters are Cai and La for Caitlin and Lara, and her brother Benjamin is Ben or Benj. Papa Taylor is a hard-working self-made man and Mama Taylor is the doting, but firm matriarch who chose a life of true “contentment” rather than an ambassadorship with the Foreign Office. The Taylors are, in short, perfect. And then—BOOM—all the Taylors, except for Mia, are killed in a bomb blast when they go to visit her brother’s swish new East End pad.
The lush introduction to the Taylor family and the subsequent tragedy would have been a stunning contrast to Mia’s flight to the East End if the author had chosen to change the main character in a fundamental way. Yes, she is grief-stricken—d’Ancona’s initial portrayal of Mia’s mourning is arresting—but what happens beyond that? The main character gives up the high life of London’s affluent Kensington and moves to London’s East End where she grieves, works as a deputy manager in a grubby, new age community centre, and lives off her trust fund.
Mia’s move is just that—a move. She can easily go back and forth between the two worlds and she does, taking an hiatus from her bereavement to buy some Jimmy Choos, a pair of diamond stud earrings and a Gucci handbag to attended a fancy shindig in London and check out what’s going on with the jet-setters. Even if Mia acts and dresses like she is working class, she will never be working class. In the end, Mia hasn’t changed; her evolution is superficial.
There are a myriad of personalities in the book and few characters. Like many of the personalities you see in cheap tabloid press and gossip columns, the Going East personalities are a bit fake, larger than life, forever out of reach, and quickly forgotten. They rarely evoke sympathy because they are there, simply, to force the plot along, jazz things up a bit, and then disappear.
Perhaps part of the reason why the characters are so weak is because d’Ancona is struggling to know what kind of book he wants to write. Does he want to do high art or pop fiction? This book sits in a serious genre crisis. It wants to be a political thriller (did Islamic militants kill Mia’s family or was it the IRA?), a romance (will rich Mia get it on with grubby East End rocker, Rob?), a travelogue (isn’t the East End cool?), a glimpse into the jet-set lifestyle (aren’t rich people cool, yet totally fucked up?), and a sociological thesis on the haves and the have-nots (is grubby-chic the new nouveau-riche?). That’s fine; a book can be all these things, but d’Ancona construction is not seamless. He attempts to do all of these spectacular things and instead the plot, like the characters, just fizzles. His scope is too wide, too ambitious, when he could have succeeded in telling more of only a fragment of the story or cutting something out altogether. His topics become unwieldy and difficult for him to grasp.
As Mia embarks on a search for her family’s killers, d’Ancona makes cringe-worthy references to the global turf war between the Middle East, the US and England. Mia discovers that her family may have been victims in the war on terrorism. d’Ancona’s treatment of this very current moment is jarring. These events come across as cheap shots because, in reality, we are faced with the pain of real people who can’t run away, who are not rich, who have strong political and religious convictions, who will never heal, and who may never personally exact revenge.
Dodgy storytelling bogs down any meaningful message. There are some potentially very important and powerful things to say, but d’Ancona doesn’t seems to have the grace or the subtlety to express it in a way that is profound. d’Ancona offers his fuzzy opinions on the local power shift within the East End from old-school, old-age gangsters to bad-ass, hip-hop Asian thugs. Again, a potentially powerful contrast between global and local changing of the guards, but one which sounds pat when a thugs boasts: “They’re gone (old gangsters), which leaves space for me (young thug), OGs like me.”
There are moments when d’Ancona could have taken this book in a direction that would have been fascinating, but he falls flat, creating a story that tries to be sophisticated, complex, and intelligent—but is actually tedious, convoluted, and disappointing.