I spent most of 2011 in Malawi, and managed to time my arrival before two days of rioting swept across the country. I spent much of those two days assuring friends and family back in the UK that I was fine, and gently suggesting that they should stop basing their idea of Africa on films like Zulu. A month later, it was me asking them for the same assurances as four days of riots swept Britain, and the film I was trying to forget was Quadraphenia.
When I heard that South African born Gillian Slovo had based a novel on the British riots, I couldn’t wait to see her perspective. Ten Days spreads a riot over ten days of a sweltering London summer, with perspectives from the people caught in it, the police trying to contain it and the ministers using it to manoeuvre for political advantage. If the characters and the riot are fictional, it’s not hard to imagine that there were people who reacted to the real thing as Slovo’s characters did.
Ten Days showed me the fear of people who don’t know whether to risk looking for a missing teenager, who may have found his own shelter or may be caught in the worst of it. The prose took me into the stifling riot gear of a copper standing in a line of shields, not knowing how long he would have to endure the bombardment of stones and petrol bombs or whether help was on the way or not. It took me into the Machiavellian mind of the Home Secretary who was less concerned about what burned as long as he looked good talking about it on the news.
It’s a drama that grips like a thriller that combines superb writing with social commentary. So why would I only give it three out of five?
Not because of what is there, but because of what wasn’t. For one thing, the overall story arc revolves around one character, who was shown through the viewpoints of the others. I didn’t feel the narrative trick was quite pulled off. There were too many gaps in his story and his resolution was too convenient to be satisfying.
The other gap was that while the novel showed me the various people who were affected by the riots, the rioters themselves were no more than faceless silhouettes. Ten Days begged the question of who feels the need to charge into the night to throw things while everyone else was trying to get out of the way.
Leaving that question open may have been a wise choice given the amount of fatuous debate there has been around the 2011 riots, mostly by commentators who are more interested in drawing attention to their favourite agenda rather than by anyone who has actually asked the rioters. If Slovo had included a view from the other side of the shield line, those commentators would have been falling over themselves to tell her how wrong she was about what put them there.
These are minor quibbles, and didn’t detract from the rollicking good read and food for thought I got from Ten Days.