By Katy Goodwin-Bates
As a teacher of teenagers, there is one question which I have become used to being asked over and over and over again. Can you guess what it is? I’ll give you a clue: it’s usually being posed by parents of teenage boys. Here’s the big question: “What can we do to get [son’s name] to read?” There are several answers to this, not all of them suitable: “Take away his phone/games console/laptop” is a particular favorite of mine, although surprisingly unpopular with those who seek my wisdom. Mark this day, though, because I have a new answer; from now on, my response to this desperate plea will be the following; “Give him a copy of Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence.”
Six Ecstasy pills, clenched in my fist. ‘I can’t take these.’
Her face clouded over. ‘Why not?’
Because Mum thinks I’m at home with my nose in a book and she’ll have a breakdown if she knows what’s in my hand.
Because boys like me don’t walk around Hackney with a pocket full of drugs.
This debut novel tells the story of Marlon, who unexpectedly finds him himself on a date with Sonya, a beautiful, older girl from his school. Things aren’t going particularly brilliantly–Sonya is doing that infuriating girl-thing of getting annoyed and not telling Marlon why, because apparently he is meant to be psychic–and then Sonya produces a packet of Ecstasy pills and convinces Marlon to try one. Marlon is not that kind of boy; his brother, Andre, once was and, as we go on to find out, that didn’t turn out to be a great life choice. Sonya, however, is pretty, so the fact that taking E is obviously a terrible idea is over-ruled in Marlon’s mind sufficiently that he goes along with it. The extent to which this is a bad idea only becomes apparent when Sonya is pronounced dead at the scene, and Marlon’s life is changed forever. Suddenly, the fact that he is black and Sonya is white becomes depressingly relevant, as assumptions are made about Marlon’s culpability.
Lawrence’s opening chapter does a good job of illustrating Marlon’s naivety; willingly holding the drugs for Sonya is the first in a lengthy catalog of mistakes he goes on to make throughout the novel. As an adult who watches the news, it’s easy to dismiss his actions as moronic, but Marlon’s bewilderment contributes to his poor decision-making, so his actions are convincing if not particularly smart. Sonya’s death leads Marlon deep into the gang culture of which his now-disabled brother was once kingpin. Orangeboy becomes particularly harrowing once villainous and vengeful gang members rear their terrifying heads; there were a few chapters towards the end during which I was genuinely scared for Marlon. In this sense, Orangeboy serves a dual purpose: hopefully engaging and entertaining young readers while simultaneously inspiring them all to tattoo ‘just say no’ across their every visible body part. It’s not overtly didactic, but Marlon’s is certainly a cautionary tale.
Problem is, the anger keeps passing down and passing down. This one does this and that one does that, so this one has to go and fight that one. One has a knife, so the other gets a strap. So what are we going to do, shoot and stab each other until no one’s left?
For me, there were slight drop-offs in realism at points in the novel. The eventual reveal of key details late on felt a little contrived, when a more subtle conclusion might have better fit the nihilistic attitudes expressed by the gang leaders Marlon encounters. Aside from this, however, Lawrence portrays London in ways which won’t do much for tourism in the city, but reflect the reality of life for disenfranchised teens who inherit a life of crime. There’s no romanticizing of drug dealing or violence; in fact, the opposite is true, with Marlon’s perspective aptly reflecting the abject fear of this downward trajectory. On her own blog, Lawrence describes Orangeboy as “a book that explores choices,” and in this sense it’s very successful in leading the reader to understand the significance of every decision, from those made by Marlon to the decisions made by others which led him into his predicament.
Overall, Orangeboy is well worth reading. It occupies a space in UK YA previously rather empty, and consequently is very welcome in providing some diversity of plot among all the tragic romances and warrior queens. Marlon is a compelling, if sometimes infuriating character, and it’s impossible to read his story without being caught up in it.