The match struck and sputtered. Victor tried again. He put match head to phosphate strip with the gentle pressure of one long finger and the thing sparked and caught and for the briefest of moments he held a yellow flame. Victor – curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor with his hair natural and braided, two thick braids and a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor – with his dark eyes and his thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, a pair of classic Air Jordans on his oversized feet, the leather so white it glowed – imagine him how you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.
In his debut novel, Sunil Yapa portrays the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation. There were over 40,000 protesters who gathered outside the Sheraton Hotel, where in delegates were waiting to be transported to the convention centre, a once peaceful protest became violent and lead to hundreds of injuries and over 150 arrests. The protesters were a mix of those rejecting cheap foreign labour, environmentalists worried about the pollution involved in shipping outsourced products and labour rights groups worried about foreign countries unsafe working conditions all mixed in with various people who simply wanted to vent about capitalistic actions.
The plot of the novel follows seven characters over the course of this one day outside the hotel. Victor is probably who I would call the central protagonist. He is a 19 year old runaway intent on selling drugs when he comes across the rioters in the street. He is the step son of another character Bishop who is the chief of police, who is leading the police operation to apprehend the rioters. With Bishop are Ju and Park, two officers; one latina and one a typical american cop. Both have very different methods of dealing with rioters. Rioters like King and John-Henry, peaceful protesters with a romantic past between them, who take Victor in as one of their own. Between intense scenes is introduced Charles Wickransinghe, a delegate from Sri Lanka, trapped inside the hotel and impatient to get to his meeting with Bill Clinton. What Yapa does incredibly well with this is include all groups from all sides of the protest, all of whom are flawed but who have some redeemable qualities. Well some more than others.
This novel is not for the faint of heart however. There are some dark scenes of real brutality which can really make you think that there is no good in the world. The treatment of the peaceful protesters by the police is unnecessary and yet the way that Yapa deals with such a dark situation is by showing the remorse that is felt by some of the police officers. For me this was incredibly important to know that some of the actions were not necessarily the ones they wanted to make. Even some of the actions of the protesters can be seen as poor decision making. King’s life is shown to be a little darker than her peaceful protester outset might seem, and Victor cannot be said to be completely without fault after running away from his stepfather. However I think giving characters flaws makes them all the more human and makes this novel even more thought provoking. There is no real saying in this novel who is right and who is wrong because there is pretty much no redemption for anyone.
I think where this book failed to grasp me in the beginning of the novel was through the character descriptions. Some were lengthy, every action attached to an unnecessary adjective which really slowed down my reading time. I did however really start to get into it when the real action began and I felt like I was able to engage with all of the characters. The pace is really what I think makes this novel. It’s heart stopping and breath taking and it’s incredibly well paced. In the beginning it feels long but as Victor joins the protest the pace picks up and it’s truly inspiring to read. In addition to that the best thing about this book is the amount it made me think. I knew nothing about the riots but really you don’t need to to start this novel. There is enough written for you to understand it but really, you can transpose any riot that you know of onto the story. The police brutality and the idea of a peaceful protest turning violent is something that is becoming more and more universal. This novel is a really interesting look into the way the police deal with riotous situations as well views from within the situation, without looking too much at the political or economic issues surrounding it.
Yapa’s debut novel is a triumph if not for its character development but as it’s ability to start discussions about our culture, our nature as a globalising world and about the ways that we deal with situations in our society that we are not happy with.
Total pages – 320
Total read time – Untimed
Rating /10 – 6.5
Recommend – Yes if you’re interested in a story based off true life events