I picked up a copy of Concentr8 by William Sutcliffe after seeing it included in the shortlist for the YA Book Prize; having read half the list, I decided to try to read the rest in order to have a really informed opinion rather than just hitting people with a copy of Asking For It. Concentr8 is an interesting inclusion on that list; for one thing, aside from the sublime The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, it’s the only book on the list written by a man, and covers very different subject matter to most of the current YA market.
Sutcliffe’s novel begins with a group of disenfranchised teenagers and a riot; the public disturbance is very familiar, with the London riots of 2011 still fresh in the memory, and Sutcliffe’s writing does a superb job of echoing that event, borrowing notable images like the looting of a Foot Locker to give authenticity to his story. While the real-life riots were instigated by the killing of a civilian by police, Concentr8’s anarchy has a different cause: the withdrawal of a Ritalin-esque drug, upon which much of the young population has become dependent. More on that later.
The novel begins with Troy’s perspective; he’s emphatic if not eloquent, and the anger and resentment that lead to riots are evident from the start. Troy acts as a kind of moral compass and principle voice of reason; even as his friends are given their own narrative voices, Troy’s remains the most trustworthy and believable. He is the character you root for. Blaze, the group’s leader and instigator of the hostage situation which takes over the action, is a frightening proposition; fatalistic and unpredictable, he rules using fear as a weapon against weaker characters like Femi and Lee. Blaze’s girlfriend, Karen, is another interesting presence; her chapters are believable, particularly in the way Sutcliffe uses that annoying habit of raising of the voice at the end of the sentence to make everything sound like a question, which means it’s easy to dismiss Karen early on, but a bad idea to do so.
Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the hostage crisis (for one thing, I’m pretty sure the police would storm the building early on and probably not buy as many Nando’s takeaways), there’s much in Concentr8 that I found really fascinating. The adult characters are a little caricatured, but this isn’t their story; Sutcliffe’s teen characters are entirely convincing and that makes their situation more emotionally involving, as the extent to which they’ve been manipulated becomes apparent. The conspiracy that unfolds as the novel progresses makes this border on dystopian, never seeming less than wholly realistic; if it turned out that what is depicted here actually happened, I don’t think anyone would be surprised, and it’s in this way that Sutcliffe crafts such a powerful narrative. I ended up viewing Concentr8 as a satire, with the buffoonish and repellent Mayor representing The Man and the teen narrators representing the masses; this book speaks about control and freedom in ways which I haven’t seen elsewhere in YA, particularly in realistic settings rather than in Panem or a massive maze.
I really recommend this book; it’s an easy read in terms of length and style, but the story and characters have stayed with me since finishing it. I’ve read a lot of books but I can’t think of any which closely resemble Concentr8; the focus on teens in opposition to adults, as well as the urban setting, made me thing of Charlie Higson’s The Enemy at times, but William Sutcliffe’s book is more compelling because of the believable, real-life situation it presents.