Title: Black Sheep
Author: Na’ima B. Robert
Genre: Contemporary YA
Received for review from the publisher
Summary (from Goodreads)
Dwayne, 16, meets high-flying, uni-bound Misha, and sparks fly. To Misha it feels like true love, but her mum is adamant that Dwayne is bad news and forbids her to see him. When Misha decides to follow her heart, the web of secrets and lies begins to tighten. For Dwayne is not quite who he says he is. And as he struggles to turn his life around while hiding his darker side from Misha, his ties with Trigger, Jukkie and the rest of his boys draw him deeper and deeper into gang violence, more serious and bloody than any he has ever seen. One night, Dwayne’s two lives collide, with devastating consequences.
It took me a long time to get into the rhythm of this. Dwayne’s voice, while well drawn, was very alien to me. Being a country girl all my life, the slang of inner city London is not something I’m familiar with, and a few times in the early chapters I had to read and reread paragraphs to get a proper understanding of what was being said.
Understand, this is not a criticism, just fair warning to anyone who, like me, isn’t used to that sort of slang. And a promise – it’s worth persevering and getting used to it. Because there’s a really moving story being told.
This is the sort of book that reminds me why diverse books are so important. Because I am not, and have never been a young black man growing up in Brixton. I’ve had a sheltered life in the Shropshire countryside, and the Berkshire countryside before that. While we were not rich, we were never uncomfortable. Growing up, I had a very blinkered view of criminals and gangs. I thought anyone who was in a gang was stupid, and that all criminals were evil. But Roberts paints the allure of gangs and gang culture in this novel – how boys and young men with nothing can be drawn into crime and violence for the rewards – in a very empathic and understandable way. Reading Dwayne’s story, you can see how he’s reached the point in his life that he has. And in the same circumstances, it’s easy to imagine doing the same thing.
Dwayne wants what’s best for his brother, so he’s a dealer in a gang in order to make sure he never has to go without. He loves the camaraderie; the gang leader is the role model that child of a single-mother Dwayne never had. He’s not stupid, and he’s not evil. He’s a young man trying to make something better for himself and his family. Then things start to spiral out of his control and it’s painful to watch him try to resolve it. There are no easy answers, no way he can move forwards without losing something important to him.
As a counterpoint, Misha is high achieving, driven and going places. She is also the child of a single mother, but her mother has done everything in her power to make opportunities for Misha, to distance her from her background. So of course, when Misha and Dwayne collide, there are fireworks. I really like how the relationship is drawn. Misha and Dwayne are in the throws of teenage infatuation and both have to learn and grow if they are to build any sort of future together. It’s a realistic, contemporary Romeo and Juliet sort of story.
Overall, well developed characters in a setting and situation that really did ought to get a lot more exposure, exploring themes of violence, gang culture, poverty and the healing power of the Islamic faith along the way. It’s pretty clear from the outset where the story is going to end up, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful or enjoyable.