I had a book-related disaster this week when I realised, having already begun it, that Willy Russell’s The Wrong Boy is not set in West Yorkshire as I thought. (You may also have realised if you picked it up after my recommendation last week – sorry!) So after flinging it – both hurriedly and reluctantly – onto my towering ‘books to read later’ pile I dashed to the library to locate one of my other suggestions for this county. Melvin Burgess’ Kill All Enemies was, thankfully, available. Never has there been a quicker change of plan!
Against the backdrop of Leeds, three teenage “troublemakers” (198) – Billie, Rob and Chris – do all they can to rebel against the expectations that their school, their parents and their society have of them. Their violent and unruly behaviour seriously jeopardises their families’ middle class personae – for the adults, there is nothing worse than succumbing to the behaviour associated with their humiliating “working-class roots” (34). Nevertheless, Billie’s repeated recourse to violence has taken her “through five schools in the past two years” (6) and to the verge of prison; everyone, without exception, expects her to end up in the “Secure Unit” (60). As well as getting into their own fights, the disengagement Rob and Chris demonstrate with the schooling process and their homework – overall, their refusal to conform to ‘the rules’ – means that they too are ousted repeatedly, thrown into a downward spiral of underperformance and disruption.
What the ‘System’ fails to take into account is the reason behind these teenagers’ distraction: at home they are forced to confront issues of “suicide. Drugs. Prostitution” (118), alcoholism, domestic abuse, disabilities, foster care, rape, divorce and abandonment. In fact, no one seems to care that they have “no idea what it felt like, sleeping somewhere where you know you’re not going to get hit, knowing that someone who loves you is sleeping under the same roof” (174). To society, these kids do not matter.
And that’s clearly how the three have come to look on themselves: as “bottom of the pecking order” (5), “bad-luck charm[s]” (192). “Big old Billie” (63) calls herself names that others have assigned to her, and has come to believe that “things go wrong when [she] turn[s] up” (24) and she is “some kind of enemy” (23) to her family. Rob, too, can’t get away from others’ labels: he’s “Roly Poly Rob” (27) even to himself, and is made to feel as worthless as a “lump of shite” (189).
These are not the only ‘values’ instilled in them by their neglectful society, which also seems to be guilty of ugly materialism, judging by Chris’ appetite to “get rich” rather than becoming “a teacher, or a doctor, or by going to uni” (12) as well as Rob’s admission the “I didn’t matter – it was the [expensive] T-shirt that mattered” (75). More to the point, since the trio are confronted, again and again, by abusive figures of authority, they have developed a vengeful thirst for power in return, led by these poor examples of “pure blind prejudice” (148). Billie, for example, plans the gruesome murder of one of her abusers; Chris is desperate not to “work for the man” but to “be the man” (13) and cause misery for others the like of which he has been subjected to; and Rob is fixated by the feeling that the screaming music of Metallica gives him, of strength “pouring out of [him], like shining beams of light”, of being “God” (28). Each of them has an unhealthy desire – whether fulfilled or not – to punish their families, peers, teachers, social workers…In other words, to “Kill All Enemies” (31). Not only does Burgess present society as being guilty of unfairness and inflicting frustration on these young people, but he also shows the irony of punishing the immoral urges that these very social problems cause.
As a result, this novel is very much a comment on society and English society in particular, with its discriminatory class system, flawed social care “industry” (63) (of which we’re only too aware recently in the case of Baby P) and the value placed on conformity. In many ways, Burgess’ novel reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984, presenting a similarly totalitarian state that maintains its level of power through stifling individuality, creativity and free will. Not only are the politicians and so-called harbingers of justice in on it – “there isn’t a judge in the country won’t chuck the book” (147) at Billie out of sheer prejudice – but so are the schools and the parents, who exert their power “like a police state” (100).
I liked this book and I’m always a sucker for an Orwellian representation of society. The characters were well-drawn and the plot engaging. I particularly enjoyed the ironic use of fairytale imagery juxtaposed against some of the horrors these teenagers are shown to experience, a reminder of their lost childhood: Chris’ brutish dad becomes a “red-faced dwarf” and “barely human” (244); Rob feels himself magically swelling and shrinking with pride and fear as he goes about his life and coming up against classmates who seem like “man-mountain[s]” with “veins stuck out like crocodiles” (236). In general, a cycle of changing perspectives is not my favourite technique in the world as I find it becomes tedious after a while, but it worked well enough here. I think Kill All Enemies is an easy 3/5 stars.
Next week I’ll be reading Gold by Chris Cleave. Let’s hope it’s set in Greater Manchester as I’ve planned…?! Read along with me.