Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa (Little, Brown Book Group UK, January 2016) caught me completely by surprise; by the time I came to read it, I had forgotten the synopsis, because I am almost as quick at forgetting stuff as I am at reading.
Yapa’s use of an increasingly not-peaceful protest as the primary setting and plot is a genius move, accentuating both the moments of high drama (altercations between protestors and police, for example) and more intimate insights into the relationships between the characters. Set in 1999 during the WTO protests, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is nonetheless topical in an era in which we are accustomed to seeing scenes of riots and angry protest. In this case, the protest focuses on a World Trade Organisation summit taking place in Seattle.
The novel focuses on a set of characters on varying sides of events – police officers and their chief, protestors and a delegate trying to get to the talks – beginning with Victor, a lost soul sleeping in underpasses and trying to sell weed, inadvertently swept up in the protests. Victor is 19 and has spent the last 3 years traveling the world; it is ironic that his experiences best qualify him to comment on the ideas the protest centres on, but his involvement is accidental and ambivalent. Early on, we discover that the Chief of Police is Victor’s estranged father, and Yapa begins to weave past familial discord into the more immediate events of the protest; it’s a clever way to hint at the underlying conflicts in family relationships. Throughout the novel, Yapa successfully raises questions about the role and nature of protest, responses by law-enforcement and government, and the development of the third world; the last of these, again, could be seen as a metaphor for the father-son relationship which is so crucial to giving emotion to Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.
The pace of the book is unrelenting, propulsive; mirroring the unstoppable escalation of the violence presented. If I have one reservation about Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, it relates to the violent altercations between police and protestors, some of which are wincingly nasty and, I would hope, exaggerated. As the daughter of a policeman, generally inclined to believe in the good intentions of the profession, I wonder if such instances of excessive tear gar use and baton beatdowns are necessary. I am, however, prepared to accept that my Pollyanna-esque attitude is sometimes misplaced. I do watch the news, after all.
As I was reading Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, one thought that struck me was its similarity to 2015’s City on Fire, in which the last 200 pages or so were similarly urgent and fast-paced. The advantage Yapa’s novel has, obviously, is that you don’t have to read 700 pages before you get to this level of excitement: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is this intense and breathless from start to finish, and is far less likely to injure you if you drop it on your foot. I really recommend this book; it is a relevant, convincing and vital piece of work.