The thing about book-selling is that there are few things more embarrassing than not being able to recommend something to a customer. It’s like that scene in You’ve got Mail when Meg Ryan goes into the big soul-sucking chain bookshop and she overhears a customer trying to find something and the poor bookseller she’s collared has no idea what she’s on about. A while ago it occurred to me that my knowledge of teenage fiction was a little lacking, so I started reading a rather large amount of it. Then I discovered that contrary to my certain previous convictions, I was actually starting to like it! But that’s another story. Of course, now I never get asked about teenage fiction. Now it’s all recommendations for eight year olds! Anyway, something I hadn’t got around to yet was Kevin Brooks, so when a proof came in of his new book, Naked, I said yeah, I’ll read it, maybe even review it if I like it.
I was being flippant. As it turns out, I like it very much. It’s a fantastic read and definitely makes me wonder if I now have absolutely any excuse not to pick up a copy of IBoy or Black Rabbit Summer. Mind you, the subject matter of this one – music – is one I’ll always read about, no matter the author, so it was kinda sold to me anyway, wasn't it?
It’s the story of a fictitious punk band in 1970’s London who conveniently enough start their band just as punk is beginning to take off. The scene is painted in painstaking detail, including everything from a popular shop hangout to Jordon, the model who basically created the look. We see Sid Vicious bouncing around like a lunatic, and that’s before he even joins the Sex Pistols. And we are told that Naked are a band who are contemporaries of the Pistols. They are, in fact, better than them. And, had things not ended in tragedy, they could have been far, far bigger.
Music is, after friends and family, probably the most important thing in my life. There are few things more beautiful; few things that can evoke such a strong reaction, bring to mind past experiences, or simply being just lovely for its own sake. I can be sitting on the bus in a wet and drizzly traffic jam and have tears spring to my eyes simply because of something that’s coming out of my headphones. Similarly, there’s something imminently satisfying about nailing a very difficult piece of music – or actually being told that you’re pretty good!
Paradoxically, there are few things I hate more than a bad piece of music. Well, bad is relative, I suppose, but there’s certain types of music I can never get on board with. One of these is the late-seventies punk movement. And the annoying thing about this is that I probably should. Without it, I’m sure the pop-punk stuff myself and my friends listened to when we were eighteen wouldn’t have come into being. We certainly wouldn’t have come up with the idea of black clothes, pink hair and dog collars by ourselves. But the difference, I think, is that the attitude has changed. The stuff we listened to was fun. It didn’t take itself too seriously, and was mostly about growing up and teenage problems (until our – whispers – nu-metal phase, but the less said about that the better…everyone did it, ok…). But seventies punk was about getting angry – even if you didn’t actually have anything to be angry about. I guess I find that irritating.
Which is why Curtis Ray, Naked’s central character, is so very, very annoying. The funny thing is, since the story is told from the viewpoint of Lili, his girlfriend, he doesn’t start out as annoying. At first the reader sees him exactly as she does – someone who is very, very cool. He has long hair, an earring and a leather jacket! He plays the guitar! He is, in fact, the person who everyone fancied at school. So when he asks her to play bass in his band, she readily agrees, and the reader automatically thinks that this is going to be a very sweet love story between two young musicians.
Well, not so much. The start of the relationship is a little disappointing – for the reader and for Lili, who realises immediately that there’s a difference between imagining falling in love, being with somebody you’ve dreamed about, and the reality.
“It just changed things so much. It changed the way I saw Curtis. It made me realise that – in one way, at least – he wasn’t any different to other boys.”
It soon becomes clear to the reader that Curtis is far fonder of music than he is of Lili. Not that he should be judged too harshly for this – I was always more interested in music than I was in boyfriends. But there are also hints that she doesn’t quite live up to his expectations of what his girlfriend should be. She doesn’t dress as ‘extremely’ as he would like. He certainly spends too much time drooling over girls half-naked in bondage gear. He also slowly but surely becomes a drug addict, which is horrible to read about – there’s been far too many musicians over the years wasting incredible talents in this way.
Something that Brooks taps into extremely well is the very reason why seventies punk is so irritating to me – the fact that many of these musicians actually had nothing to be so rebellious about. Curtis comes from a middle-class family. He is passionate about punk music – there is absolutely no doubt about that – but he believes he doesn’t belong because of his background, and perhaps he has a point when you consider the Sex Pistols’ working class roots.
“It was almost as if he resented the fact that he hadn’t been born poor, so he didn’t really have anything to rage against. He knew, deep down, that his rebelliousness had no cause, and he blamed his parents for that.”
So when the reader is introduced to William Bonney, it’s like a bit of fresh air – for both Lili and the reader. He’s from Belfast. His working-class – yet initially happy – childhood was blighted by horrendous conflict between Loyalists and Republicans. When we meet him, both his parents are dead, and he, his brother and stepmother Nancy are living in this country slightly illicitly. He actually has something to be angry about – but he never is. While he will use violence when the band is threatened, and while he is IRA-sympathetic, he absolutely abhors the idea of harming innocent people.
“Part of me still believes in what my dad believes in, that it’s a war, and that we have a right to fight back…but the thing is…I don’t want anyone to get hurt. I don’t want anyone else to get killed. It’s just not right.”
There’s also the fact that while he is a natural musician, and loves the punk scene almost as much as Curtis, he loves his family – and, eventually, Lili – more. While Curtis spends his band earnings on drink and drugs, William would rather spend his on paying Nancy’s rent. It’s this conflict between his two interests which leads, eventually, to the end of the band – and tragedy.
If there is one criticism I would make with the book, it’s that of Lili’s character. I’m afraid she suffers from Bella Swan syndrome. I don’t actually know anything about her, other than her own terrible home life, and the fact that she likes music. Which means she’s defined by the men she dates, really. She never mentions other friends – or other interests – which is a shame as it means that, as a character, she’s rather one-dimensional. But it’s still a fantastic read, and I would love to see a film made out of it.