JOHN R. GORDON'S NEW NOVEL, Souljah, comes with an unusual gimmick: A movie trailer. That's because a blistering short film  of the same name (starring Ludvig Bonin and Nathan Clough) has recreated a key sequence from early in the novel. You can head over to YouTube and watch it right now. I'll be waiting here until you get back.

Done? Did you enjoy that? Did it make you want to find out what happens next?

This wonderful little short is just a hint of the rollercoaster ride Gordon takes us on with Souljah, which oscillates between horror, comedy (one of the most grimly funny sex scenes you'll ever read), tragedy, and in the nail biting climax - which takes us on a heart-stopping night chase through London's streets - thriller.

"When violent thug Evill and his drug-dealing South London crew menace Stanlake, a young African refugee, and his mother Poppy, little do they realize that this effeminate youth is a former child soldier, capable of the most extreme responses. Forced to meet violence with violence, Stanlake stands up to his tormentors, only to find himself drawn into a darkly erotic and passionate relationship with the damaged, closetted Evill. As love begins to bloom between the two deeply-scarred young men old evil erupts, threatening to consume them both and compelling Stanlake to face – and move beyond – his past."

Souljah takes us back to when Stanlake was growing up, before, and most gruelling of all, during his time as a child soldier. Anyone who's seen Johnny Mad Dog will know what to expect: a catalogue of dehumanising horrors, that play out in a hyperreal, dreamlike fashion. It's Lord of the Flies, boys doing things they really shouldn't. Author Gordon doesn't allow us to look away from the spectacle, except to juxtapose 21st century London. And it turns out it's no less brutal than the war zone Stanlake is fleeing from.

In a way, Souljah echoes Gordon's brilliant 2012 novel Faggamuffin, which saw a gay Jamaican fleeing "the most homophobic country in the world" (a title now hotly contested by a number of African countries). In that novel, we saw London through a Yardie's eyes. With Souljah, Gordon goes even deeper; Stanlake must find his place in a world that is completely alien to him, and endure the dehumanising process of seeking asylum. It's a privilege for us, the readers, to witness. Painful, but a privilege, nonetheless.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Stanlake's - and his mother Poppy's - observations about modern Britain are often amusing and on the nail, and his slowly blossoming relationship with Evill a joy - albeit one that constantly feels like it might be crushed by the ugliness around it. But Gordon doesn't go in for cheap tragedy, a trope beloved by so many gay writers and filmmakers. Souljah brims with optimism and hope, despite the horrors adeptly recounted within its pages.

So it's a shame that, despite its depth and power, you probably won't hear about Souljah in the gay press. This month's Attitude has previews of books about Oscar Wilde, and the latest from the lady who wrote Tipping The Velvet; The Advocate is similarly backward looking and whitewashed. The stories of black gay men don't seem to be of interest to the gay powerbrokers.

That's a real injustice, because this is a story that deserves everyone's attention. Souljah is truly breathtaking, in scale, and in ambition. At times, the book had me crying like a baby. The book's final act escalated so rapidly I just couldn't put it down. I had to know how Stanlake and Evill's story ended. You will too. Be a soldier for the good guys: go out and buy Souljah. You won't be disappointed.

Souljah is out on Monday 22nd September 2014.

Read our exclusive interview with author John R. Gordon.


John G said...

Thank you for this beautiful - and beautifully presented - review.

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