Sometimes, it’s the books you buy on a whim that can turn out to be the most meaningful, and the ones you’ll treasure for years. ‘Heroic’, by Phil Earle, is one of those books for me.
It wasn’t actually me who chose this one – it was my husband. We were browsing through the children’s and YA shelves in a large bookshop a few weeks ago, and he handed it to me. ‘This looks interesting,’ he said. ‘I might actually read this myself.’
Well. That got my attention. My husband, read fiction? This must be some book!
I added it to my pile of to-be-purchased titles without really looking at it; I checked out the cover image, saw that it was a Penguin title (it’s great to have such trust in a publisher!) and was quite happy to fork over the money for it. Then, when it arrived back home with us, it took me a little while to get around to reading it; when I did, though, I wondered what had taken me so long.
‘Heroic’ is the story of Sonny McGann, primarily, though his brother Jammy is the other main narrative voice in the book. We read three or four chapters in Sonny’s voice, and then three or four in Jammy’s, and so on – the story unfolds through both their perspectives. Sonny and Jammy have grown up on the Ghost, a high-rise housing estate somewhere in London, the focal point (and only un-graffittied part) of which is a large statue of the soldiers at the centre of the housing units. This outsize memorial was raised to commemorate the men of the area who’ve given their lives, down through the years, in the service of the Army, and it’s often mentioned – as a meeting point, as a reference point, as a grounding image, and, finally, as an emotional focus – throughout the story. Life on the Ghost is not easy – fathers are absent or abusive, mothers are worked to exhaustion, unemployment among the young is rife, drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. In order to escape his life, and earn some money to help his mother keep the family together, Jammy enlists in the Army, and is deployed to Afghanistan along with his best friend and neighbour, Tommo.
Sonny is left to face the cauldron that is the Ghost. His sections of the story tell us of his struggles to keep away from crime and drug abuse, his love for Cam (the sister of Tommo), and his everyday life, full to the brim of frustration and rage. He wants to help his mother by trying to get some sort of job, but she wants him to stay at school; they both know, in any case, that being labelled as ‘a kid from the Ghost’ will make him unemployable, so their arguments are, in some ways, moot. His future looks grim, and his life is hard – it’s leavened only by the presence of the beautiful, gentle and compassionate Cam, whom he loves deeply. However, Cam – as a sister of one of ‘the gang’ – is supposed to be out of bounds; her relationship with Sonny must therefore be kept secret, and it is a huge source of stress for them both. Sonny’s friends are struggling as much, or more, than he is, particularly the enigmatic and troubled Hitch, and their efforts to carve out a living for themselves is painfully described.
Interspersed with this brutal vision of life, we read about Jammy’s experiences in Afghanistan. He does his best to take his friend Tommo under his wing, trying to keep him safe and sane amid the dust and terror, and he struggles with the reasoning behind their presence in Afghanistan to begin with. He learns the hard way about the drawbacks of trying to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of local people, the brutality both of the war and of the regime they are, allegedly, there to fight, and how risky it is to become close to the people you’re trying to protect. A scene in the middle of the book involving Jammy and an Afghani child almost literally stole my heart out of my chest and broke it; I had to close the book, put it aside, and weep for a good ten minutes. It is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever read, made even more harrowing by the fact that similar events happen every day in reality. Eventually, Jammy returns from Afghanistan, but what he’s been through, and what he’s seen, mean that the man who comes back to the Ghost is not the same man who left. Jammy’s struggles to reintegrate, to slot back into life with his family and community, are unashamedly examined. The book particularly takes us into the heart of his relationship with Sonny, and how the brothers seem to have lost something precious that once bonded them to one another.
Cam, Sonny’s girlfriend, becomes a pivotal character in trying to heal the brothers’ relationship despite the fact that she is dealing with her own unimaginable loss. The boys’ mother, driven to distraction by the life she is leading and the future that faces her sons, is a strong and loving figure, but it takes her love and Cam’s together to have any impact on Jammy and Sonny. They have to realise how much they share and how deep are the ties that bind them before they can reforge their relationship, but their attempts to do this are almost too much for either of them to take.
‘Heroic’ pulls no punches. It is a visceral novel, full of pain and anger; the characters’ rage spills forth from the pages and their tightly-bounded lives struggle to break free from between the lines of text. I didn’t just read this book – I lived it, I breathed it, I felt the strictures of the Ghost and the front-line both. I willed the characters on, frustrated by Sonny’s immaturity and pigheadedness as much as by Jammy’s inability to admit he needed help, horrified by Hitch’s struggle with heroin and Cam’s experiences at the hands of her father, and deeply moved by the love between them all, and their willingness to do whatever it took to save one another from destruction. Having said all this, I don’t mean to imply that ‘Heroic’ is a bleak book – it isn’t, really. The desperation and pain of the characters’ lives is always counterpointed with their love for, and devotion to, one another. You could almost say this is a book about brotherhood – not just the blood ties that bind Sonny and Jammy, and which end up, in a way, being weaker than the ties between Sonny and his friends, and Jammy and his comrades – but the brotherhood, or the family links, that bind all of us together, wherever we live or whatever we face in life.
In short, this book is a marvel. I’m so pleased my husband spotted it, and that I bought it, because it’s probably not the sort of book I’d have picked up for myself. Now, I know better. I’ll be looking out for the rest of Phil Earle’s books, and recommending them highly to everyone I come across.
Happy Saturday, y’all. Get reading!