I’ll be straight with you all. I like my literature like I like my milk; warm and comforting. Now that’s not to say that I don’t find some pretty strange things comforting – A Song of Ice and Fire, for example – but in the end I still prefer my escapism to be into a place which feels better than the world I inhabit, and not the reverse.
Boxer Handsome is quite the opposite, then, of my comfort zone. It’s relentlessly gritty, bombarding you with ever more bleak tableaus one after the other until you long for a good colouring book or perhaps a few re-reads of The Very Hungry Caterpillar just to feel clean again. It’s violent, coarse and hard hitting. The books reads like it’s subject matter, landing blow after blow with every page you turn. Whitwham seems to take some glee in the raw descriptiveness of the more unsettling elements of the story. It’s a book which doesn’t know what sugar coating means, which, I’d imagine, is probably deliberately designed to invoke these responses from suburban softies such as myself.
The book tells the story of a young boxer, Bobby, whose big fight with a rival gypsy boy becomes a grudge match after he scars him in a street fight with a broken bottle at the book’s outset. The two fight over a girl; the daughter of the gypsy patriarch who has long been at odds with Bobby’s family and the neighbourhood’s non-gypsy Irish community. All of that, however, seems to be largely irrelevant compared to the message which appears to run throughout the book. Whitwham, it seems, seeks to paint a wider picture of themes such as urban decay and community relations in working class London. She shows the world around Bobby in widespread decline, almost everyone over the age of 30 featured is an alcoholic or otherwise a shadow of what they once were, back in the good old days, back in the boxing days.
The book is not what it would initially appear then, which when I offered to review it I’d assumed would be a kind of romanticised, Guy Ritchie-esque look at the heyday of the East End boxing scene. In fact, it only becomes apparent some way into the book that we aren’t in the 1960s, and that the book is set in the present day, which is important, because it slowly begins to change the perspective as the plot progresses. This isn’t some sort of rose-tinted look back at all; although it still tries its best to put the past on a pedestal. It’s a story of lost community, of how the working class London institution of boxing, seen as a force for good in troubled neighbourhoods has declined with the values it espoused. Bobby is in many ways a relic of the past living in a present where young men such as he no longer follow the codes and edicts that the boxing used to instil a world filled with poverty, anger and austerity. As far as East-End boxing goes, Boxer Handsome seems both an ode, and an obituary. Well, maybe anyway. As I say, I think I’ll stick to Game of Thrones.