I have a lot of issues with this book, but there are some things that are good, even beautiful about it. Courtenay does a wonderful job of describing the settings and I can feel, taste, smell it as if I were there. Also this book is set in an interesting place with some very important, very heavy themes. He drives home the point of racial equality and the worth of humans regardless of race or religion. The sentiment certainly is noble.
However, the craft of the book is lacking. There is not enough tension in the book (despite all the graphic violence) mostly because it starts off with Peekay being harassed and tortured as a small 5 year old. After his awful experience at boarding school Peekay decides that his destiny is to become a champion boxer and, as soon as he starts boxing, he becomes undefeated with something like 116 fights, he was pretty brilliant concerning music, he speaks something like 5 languages fluently and uses it for the good of mankind, and all his academic pursuits he mostly achieves (no he didn't get the Road Scholarship to Oxford University, but he did get accepted and had scholarships to other Universities). So there was no tension for his character, because after Peekay picks himself up at age 5, he himself is consistently a winner in athletics and academics. His success is a sure bet. Sure people around him have awful lives and some die in horrible ways, but the character seemingly overcomes his early childhood almost as if he were superhuman. It doesn't feel real or accessible to me.
The thing I had most problems with is that Peekay, because of his empathy and his fluency in many languages and the tribal and cultural niceties, somehow becomes the white boy savior of the black people. I think I would have been fine with him doing great things for the black community in an extraordinary way, but the addition to him treating the black people as less than subhuman, changing the prison system so that blacks could get mail from their loved ones, and him starting a school for black people to read and write (all of which are plausible things for an extraordinary character in a historical fiction), but also he became the Tadpole Angel: Zulu spiritual leader of the African tribes of the region. The fact that the blacks in this book regarded him as a magical savior just really seemed overboard for me.
So my basic response to this book was that it was tedious and long and meandered through seemingly a lifetime of this character's experiences, but mostly I found a lot of this novel a little too fantastical for historical fiction. It felt like a lot of wish fulfillment to me.
Maybe I didn't like this middle school mobster story because I 'm not a boy and I never was into mobster movies or baseball, or perhaps it's because the hijinks the characters get into make me feel a bit squeamish as a parent. (Not sure if I feel comfortable with criminal tweens as protagonists I should route for.)Either way, this was not my bag.
Since this story isn't set in some sort of urban fantasy, I felt like this middle school kid being a sort of a mob boss silly in a bad way. It didn't seem plausible. The kid characters acted and spoke like adults. I had a hard time connecting or relating to this story.
I was truly embarrased for the narrator. Some of his characters sounded retarded when I don't think that was his intent. Often I was so distracted by the poor reading that I missed what was happening in the story.
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