A debut novelist tackles the hurt and the horror of gang life on a London housing estate.
From the opening paragraphs, you know this isn't going to be the jubilant tale of childhood merriment suggested by the title. Playground begins with protagonist Jonah speaking from crutches to an audience of young offenders about his troubled past. A past that includes a back-full of bullets from a Tec-9 sub-machine gun.
Prelude over, we're cast back into Jonah's four-day 'holiday' in London, returning to visit his childhood friends after an extended spell at college in Nottingham.
On his first day back in the capital, Jonah watches his former playmates putting away childish things in favour of brandishing pistols at innocent bystanders, reveling in stolen goods and narcotics, raping a crack whore, reminiscing about paedophile cops and shooting a disrespectful partygoer in the foot. It's grim, grim stuff, and leaves the reader feeling like a punch bag as the parade of misadventures threatens to overwhelm.
But come day two and the pace settles down to a more measured exploration of changing relationships. Jonah feels increasingly distant from his mates, who've fallen under the spell of the mysterious, soft-spoken Solomon. Events slowly spiral towards the inevitable climax hinted at in the opening lines, and this is the ultimate chill in a book of monstrosities: you know what's coming for Jonah right from the start.
Considering the nasty subject matter, Playground is an infinitely compelling read. The characters, while at first feeling like caricatures, are slowly revealed in all their non-glory. Solomon, in particular, is a curious beast, with his impossible conjuring tricks and self-assured calm. Is he even real? The loose, conversational style reads like the author has one eye on a screenplay, and this twisted tale of stretched friendships and grotesque misdemeanours is one of the most unlikely page-turners we've had the pleasure and horror to read.