Like many teenagers across the UK, I studied An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley for my GCSEs. Or was it SATs? Who knows? It was so long ago. But while the intricacies of lesson plans, coursework and exams have faded into oblivion, the memory of myself and my classmates reading out each line of the twisty, tense play has stayed with me.
It follows a wealthy family, the Birlings, whose dinner is interrupted by the arrival of a police inspector who informs them that a working-class woman has recently died of suicide. As the play unravels, it turns out that each member of the family could have had a part to play in her death…
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (2015)
Chigozie Obioma’s marvelous debut The Fisherman is a powerful tale rooted in the African oral storytelling tradition. It follows four brothers in a small town in Nigeria who go fishing at a forbidden local river. While there, they meet a local madman who predicts that the oldest brother will be killed by a “fisherman” – who the brother takes to mean one of his other brothers; it’s a whole mess. This Macbeth-like prophecy triggers a series of tragic events of almost mythic proportions.
Just like the Inspector’s presence breeds paranoia among the privileged Birlings, the madman’s prophecy sows seeds of paranoia and distrust in the brothers at the heart of The Fishermen, leading to tragedy.
Obioma’s novel, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, was also adapted for the stage by Gbolahan Obisesan and performed in theatres across the country including in London, Manchester and the Edinburgh Fringe. If you fancy it, the stage version is also available to read here.
Darling by Rachel Edwards
Described as a “Brexit thriller”, Darling elevates many of the themes explored in An Inspector Calls to shocking heights. Alongside class divisions and thrilling mysteries, we are also confronted with the subject of race: author Rachel Edwards was inspired to write Darling after being subjected to racist abuse a few days after the 2016 EU referendum.
The novel centres on the clash between Darling and her new white teenage stepdaughter, Lola. Told in alternating chapters in Darling’s and Lola’s voices, Darling is set just ahead of the Brexit referendum vote and examines racism, right-wing populism, mental health and sexual abuse.
Like An Inspector Calls, Darling is a critique on society: While Priestley’s 1912-set play is an exploration of the exploitation of the working-class in a capitalist society, Edwards’ Darling is a story of jealousy and obsession that highlights the plight of people of colour in an increasingly divided society.
Another book that focuses on the divisions in society, particularly in terms of class and race, is hip-hop artist and writer Akala’s fantastic book Natives, a blend of autobiography and political history that holds up a mirror to contemporary Britain.
In incisive detail, Akala considers the first time he was stopped and searched as a child, the day he realised his mum was white and his first encounters with racist teachers, among other memories, to explore how race and class have shaped his life and outlook. Akala uses these experiences as a focal point to look at the wider social, historical and political factors that have led us to the way things are today.
An important consideration for the author was to expose the “silly myth” of Britain being a meritocracy and how various institutions such as the police and education consistently fail young black people, in much the same way that Priestley argued that capitalism and self-interest were incompatible with social responsibility.
And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando
Alongside An Inspector Calls, which is set in the fictional industrial city of Brumley in the North Midlands, many of Priestley’s other works are also set in the North of England, including The Good Companions and When We Are Married.
Emerging YA writer Danielle Jawando, who is from Manchester, also uses the North of England as a backdrop in her work. And the Stars Were Burning Brightly, her deeply felt debut about loss and love, weaves a rich tapestry that features her hometown of Manchester as its setting.
The novel tells the story of 15-year-old Nathan who discovers that his older brother Al has taken his own life. Convinced that his brother was in trouble, Nathan decides to retrace Al’s footsteps. As he does, he meets Megan, Al's former classmate, who is as determined as Nathan to keep Al's memory alive.
This book has been nominated for a wealth of prizes including the YA Book Prize and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, so Jawando is definitely a writer to watch.
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