Two former sociology students revisit the radicalism of the 1980s in an explosive examination of class, politics and memory
The British writer and film-maker Wayne Holloway called his 2015 debut, Land of Hunger, a short story collection rather than a novel because “a ‘novel’… sounds so lame, so pompous”. Then came a satirical dystopia drawn on his time in Hollywood, Bindlestiff (2019), loved by M John Harrison, one of this year’s Booker judges, as well as the Sun. His new novel about class, politics and historical memory has starring roles for Islamic State, the union leader Bob Crow and, briefly, Howard Jacobson. “Idiosyncratic” doesn’t begin to get near him.
It follows Paul, an introspective ex-tube driver with Irish roots, who meets our unnamed narrator while studying sociology in the 1980s (as did Holloway) at Essex University, a hotbed of radicalism in the Thatcher years. When the action begins, the two men haven’t seen each other for 30 years, their days of anti-apartheid protests and picketing with miners – to say nothing of druggy nights debating French theory – long past. Now our narrator is busy shooting commercials around the world, and Paul passes his days eyeballing a local lettings agent while on the line to a radio phone-in bemoaning the impending gentrification of his east London estate.
As we spool back to fill in the intervening decades, the novel unfolds as an anarchic elegy for a post-Thatcher workforce cornered by debt, “the dream of revolution… devolv[ing] into a street fight for jobs”. The omnivorously ranty narrative (football chants, Morning Star clips) swaps its discursive formula for explosive drama when Paul’s teenage daughter joins Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, as the force of the title’s first-person plural spirals ever outwards to encompass global conflict.
Holloway admires the late Croatian author Daša Drndić, whose pulverising novels steeped in 20th-century bloodshed have clearly left a mark on his own style. Our Struggle likewise upends staid literary norms to offer a similar balance of risk and reward, its invigorating cacophony a seditious thrill liable to leave the reader punch-drunk.