On the Come Up

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Angie Thomas, On the Come Up, Walker Books, February 2019, 448 pp., RRP $17.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781406372168

This second novel by writing sensation Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give) is another cracking good story brimming with heart and life in 434 pages of high drama and intense feeling. It is perfectly pitched at its audience.

Sixteen-year-old Brianna’s life is the opposite of easy. She lives with her brother and her mum, a recovering drug addict and still misses her dad, a famous rapper in the ‘hood, who was killed in a gang shootout. When her mum loses her job, the family comes under severe financial stress. Brianna who has always wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps feels compelled to fast track her rapping career. She publishes a song that brings her to the attention of Supreme, her dad’s former manager, and despite misgivings she dumps her Aunt Pooh who has been looking out for her and comes to an agreement with Supreme. She is on ‘the come up’ – becoming successful as a rap star.

Thomas has used her own experiences as a teenage rapper to pen this story of life in the ‘ghetto’. Part of her inspiration also came from when her own mother lost her job so Thomas knows what she is writing about when she describes the desperation of trying to survive in a tough neighbourhood. While the focus is firmly on Brianna, there are many lovingly crafted characters throughout the novel which create a fully realised picture of Brianna’s life. Thomas touches on many themes – mother/daughter relationship, the many layers of love and selfishness within a family, romance both gay and straight, the use and abuse of power, the nature of friendship, the effect of violence, race relations, prejudice and more. The core of the novel is about how Brianna comes of age, realizing the importance of being yourself and what that means for her, for her music, and for her family.

While the book is well written throughout, fast paced and carefully plotted, Thomas deserves a special mention, perhaps even an Oscar for her splendid dialogue. She uses the cadences and argot of the ‘hood’ with stunning and often humourous effect. In its own way this story, while a terrific read, is so cinematic that I suspect a film version is not far away.

It is very much a book for our times but as it deals with drug use, violence and contains strong language and adult themes, I recommend it for older readers.

Reviewed by Mia Macrossan

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