Divided City by Theresa Breslin

Corgi, 2006, 236 p. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.

Divided City cover

One night Graham (surname never specified) is taking a short cut – against which his parents have repeatedly warned him – on his way home from football training when he witnesses a gang chasing and stabbing a young lad whom they call “asylum scum”. Graham comforts the wounded boy, Kyoul, uses the mobile phone Kyoul has dropped to call an ambulance and accompanies him to the hospital then slips away but not before Kyoul asks him to take a message, and the phone, to his girlfriend Leanne. This leads to Graham almost by accident involving another boy from training, Joe Flaherty (who is of course from across the sectarian divide to which the book’s title mainly refers) in finding Leanne’s house. She is grateful but has kept her relationship with Kyoul from her own parents and so asks them to visit Kyoul for her. This strand of the book where they find common purpose off the training pitch is intertwined with the background of both footballers.

Graham’s Granda Reid is a proud Orangeman who wants Graham to march in the big Orange Walk which is coming up. Graham’s parents have always resisted pressure to make him take part when he was younger saying he should make his own mind up when he is old enough. However, this is the year he must do so. Joe’s family members are equally committed to upholding their Catholic traditions.

But this is where Divided City is too diagrammatic. Nearly every domestic conversation in the book centres on sectarianism and how the “others” mistreat “our” side.

There were other infelicities. The football training is for a youth team to be known as Glasgow City which is about to take part in an inter-cities youth competition. Here credulity becomes strained. If both boys were as good at football as the novel tells us they’d most likely already be attached to a club and probably not allowed to play for anyone else. Another unconvincing aspect is that Leanne is said to be “not yet sixteen” but she met Kyoul who had wandered in off the street at one of Glasgow University’s school open days and both ended up looking at a stand where they were each wondering what courses they would choose and struck up a conversation. Fifteen is rather young for such a trip. Also, the first time home ground of Rangers is mentioned it’s by a supporter, who calls it “Ibrox Park.” A fan would just say “Ibrox”. Similarly we get “the Celtic Parkhead stadium”. Then there is the description of an Old Firm game where the phrase “unleashed a stinging right kick” is used. It’s called a shot, not a kick. Later one fan is enjoined to ‘Watch the play’. It would be ‘Watch the game’.

Granted the dilemma of an asylum seeker from a ‘White List’ country, deemed to be safe but which isn’t, may need elucidating to a wider audience, yet while the novel is even-handed enough as between Protestant and Catholic viewpoints I struggled to see for what audience this could have been written, whom it was intended to educate. The book’s cover is emblazoned with the phrase “Carnegie Medal winning author” implying it’s for young adults. But young adults in Glasgow will know about sectarianism, those elsewhere likely not care (Northern Ireland excepted.) The incidental illustration of the usual parental restrictions on adolescent comings and goings do not expand the scope. Divided City’s earlier chapters reminded me of a certain kind of not very good Science Fiction which doesn’t trust its reader to make the connections, so too much is spelled out. And there is an overuse of exclamation marks. I would submit that YA readers deserve better.

There is a good novel about sectarianism – and/or football – in Glasgow out there. This isn’t it.

Pedant’s corner:- “the dark openings of the tenement building mawed at him” (the openings stomached at him?) the local senior boy’s club” (boys’ club, I think,) refers to winning the League Championship (it’s just “winning the League” not League Championship,) Rangers’ (Rangers’s,) ‘How are we going to do that without getting caught.’ (Needs a question mark, not a full stop.)

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