Troublemakers (Catherine Barter)

4.5 stars

“In three years I will be able to vote and I will still have less power than I did at the moment that I saw that email, which was such a tiny thing but look what happened.

Fifteen-year-old Alena never really knew her political activist mother, who died when she was a baby. She has grown up with her older half-brother Danny and his boyfriend Nick in the east end of London. Now the area is threatened by a bomber who has been leaving explosive devices in supermarkets. It is only a matter of time before a bomb goes off. 

Against this increasingly fearful backdrop, Alena seeks to discover more about her past, while Danny takes a job working for a controversial politician. As her family life implodes, and the threat to Londoners mounts, Alena starts getting into trouble. Then she does something truly rebellious.”

I don’t tend to read contemporaries, I’m definitely a reader of science fiction and fantasy first and foremost. However, when I read the blurb for ‘Troublemakers’ I was intrigued. We’re in a bit of a maelstrom in British politics, filled with the Brexit nightmare, racism, terrorism and general bigotry. We have a government that, honestly, can’t quell their infighting, let alone look after the complex needs of an entire country.

‘Troublemakers’ is a book about a young girl’s political awakening, but also about personal growth and values. Alena has, in many ways, grown up in a bubble of enlightened thought within her stable family unit of legal guardian elder brother, Danny, a journalist, and his partner Nick, who runs an ethical coffee shop. Hanging over her life is the spectre of her mother, a political activist who died when she was very young. Alena has been sheltered from the bigotry and hate of the world around her but the decision of her brother to take a job in the campaign team of a right wing mayoral candidate cracks that bubble right open.

This book is very much a story about morals. Danny takes this job because of financial concerns, because he’s terrified of not being able to care for his family, but in doing so he pushes his moral concerns to the side. Nick, a man who lives his entire life by his morals, is confused and abhorred by Danny’s decision. Alena in the middle is trying to come to terms with what it all means for her.

Alena’s confusion sends her searching for the ghost of her mother, trawling through internet archives and finding mobile numbers for her old colleagues. Over it all lies the storage crate, a mythical entity to Alena which contains her mother’s belongings and, maybe, her answers.

The story asks a lot of questions about grief. About how Danny seems to have never really come to terms with his grief and Alena, because of that, has never been allowed to explore her feelings about her mother at all. There were parts of this story that were so emotionally raw that I actually cried.

‘Troublemakers’ is a really intense, nuanced and emotionally intelligent story. It captures the heart of London and it’s diverse and sometimes slightly bizarre political landscape. It’s a very well timed book in an era where youth are having to become increasingly politicised to allow their voices to be heard. I think one thing that it maybe skated over is social media’s part to play in all of this. Alena, as a fifteen year old, would, without a doubt, be on social media and that would have a impact on the type of politics and views that she was engaging with. I think, from that perspective, it felt as if the story was taking place a couple of years ago, rather than in the up to date, very digital London that I know.

This is a book filled with hope but also aching sadness. It’s clever, astute, with an emotional clout that I wasn’t expecting when I started to read it. I’d recommend it to young adults but also to older ones, because I think it’s important that everyone remembers the weight their political decisions burden upon the youth of this country.

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for a copy in return for an honest review.

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