I've just finished Feral Youth - and loved it, mostly - but while the story was engaging, its overall message troubles me.
The protagonist is Alesha, a 15 year old mixed race girl living on an estate in Peckham. She's lost touch with her mum (and has never met her dad), and is living in her friend's great-grandma's flat. In the first chapter, she gets permanently excluded from school for assaulting a girl who's affiliated with a rival gang. The book follows her attempts to hold on to family, money, a floor to sleep on.
Luckily she has a saviour in the form of her lovely white middle class ex piano teacher. It was these passages that struck an uncomfortable note, for me: Miss Merfield is basically always right, always knows best, and will always save Alesha from whatever scrape she's got into this time. As the book goes on, it becomes clear that Miss Merfield will also save Alesha from her entire life.
The message of the book seems to be: learn to work within the system; negotiate bureaucracy at the housing office and the job centre; get a minimum wage job and hope it will lead to something better; all with the help of your white lady-knight in piano-playing armour. Relying on gangs - or even your friends - for support, employment, protection, a place to stay might be the easier option, but it is morally wrong and will lead to deserved disaster in the end. Don't, whatever you do, try to change anything, it's too big and it will crush you.
Basically, don't try to change the system, don't operate outside the system, definitely don't take a fucking big hammer to the system: just learn to work within the system. That's the only way to succeed.
It's the Tory model of aspiration that revolves around trying to escape from the working class - rather than trying to improve the lot of the working class as a whole. A lucky few are allowed to do so against the odds, and held up as examples of industry and bootstrapping. If they can do it, you can too; you just have to try harder. Believe in yourself. Failure to escape into the well-heeled tree-lined life of East Dulwich is proof of your lack of ambition, drive, self-belief. A psychological failing, not the almost inevitable result of trying to work a system which is designed to keep you down.
It is a good book. I loved the character of Alesha, I loved the window the book opened onto a world we white middle-class people so often ignore, steadfastly avoiding eye contact on buses or scurrying home to close the curtains over our barred windows in sold-off council flats. I loved that this young scarred woman of colour, living precariously on London's margins, got a voice - got to tell her story without whitewashing or intermediary. That hoods and knives and muggings and riots got put into context, not just explained away by Moral Decline or Absent Male Role Models or plain old Badness.
But going through all of this to have Alesha come to the blinding realisation that the middle class lifestyle is what I should aspire to! and if I don't succeed in life, it's because I haven't tried hard enough! seems, to me, to be doing her a disservice. The world genuinely is fucked, and the odds really are stacked against people who are poor and not white and not "well-spoken". There really are more people than there are jobs, and all the positive thinking in the world won't find decent work for all of them. Even if Alesha herself manages to claw her way out of poverty by Self-Belief and Hard Work and having a posh white saviour who will teach her how to trim her personality and voice and behaviour to fit this new world - that doesn't make the system any less awful. It changes Alesha's life, which is no small thing, but it leaves hundreds of thousands of other Aleshas languishing behind her. Feral Youth's philosophy offers scant hope to them.