From Women Reads Books.
Mukesh Agarwal sits alone in the Black Eagle pub, unaware that a riot is brewing or that Billy, his youngest son, is still out on his bike…A mile away, at home in Church Street, Anila, one of the three Agarwal girls, is reading Smash Hits and listening to Radio One as she sprawls across the bottom bunk, oblivious to the monumental tragedy that is about to hit her family.
It is 1981 and Handsworth is teetering on the brink of collapse. Factories are closing, unemployment is high, the National Front are marching and the neglected inner cities are ablaze as riots breakout across Thatcher’s fractured Britain. The Agarwals are facing their own nightmares but family, pop music, protest, unexpected friendships and a community that refuses to disappear all contribute to easing their personal pain, and that of Handsworth itself.
The Handsworth Times is a story of loss and transition, and pulling together because ultimately, there is such a thing as society.
The relationships entwined within this gem of a book are so delicately beautiful that The Handsworth Times becomes a truly sublime read. First there are the obvious relationships between the family members, but in a way the genuinely lovely bond that Usha and her neighbour Brenda share throughout the book is probably what shines through for me.
Set eponymously in Handsworth in 1981, the unrest of the country as a whole is juxtaposed with the chaos that descends in the Agarwal household. The results of the riot are brought into the Agarwal home and the devastation it creates is achingly poignant. The way the family learns to cope and deal with this is of course different for each person, but then each coping mechanism has its own knock-on effect.
I don’t want to gloss over the history running through the book, but neither can I claim to be any sort of expert in the political history of Britain. The knowledge I do possess I’m sure has all been learnt as I’ve gotten (rapidly!) older, considering I wasn’t quite into double figures yet, and I was probably more concerned with how many sweets I could buy with my 10p pocket money and playing outside on my bike. As a result I found the whole social history aspect really interesting to read, and I loved the musical references scattered throughout.
However it was, as I initially touched upon, the relationships that made this book for me. It’s not the differences between the community of Handsworth that stand out, instead it’s the similarities that unite them all. It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the plot, but the inner battles each of the Agarwal’s faces are realistic and at times heartbreaking. This isn’t a book of sadness though, there are very painful moments yes, but there is also a heap of happiness and laughter too.
I so enjoyed reading this book, the writing is as joyous as the story itself. Totally recommended.