Books & Literature

Book Review: On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas

A 16-year-old African American girl dreams of one day being a famous rapper.

This novel is about trying to realise your rapping dream and the lengths you'll go to get your family away from the ghetto.

Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, has written another novel set in the same fictional poor black neighbourhood of Garden Heights. In her new novel, Bri is a 16-year-old African American girl who dreams of one day being a famous rapper. She attends Midtown School of the Arts, which takes kids from neighbouring Garden Heights as part of their “diversity initiative” and to get some extra grant money.

Bri is dealing with a whole heap of baggage before she even gets to school in the morning. Her mother has been clean of her drug addiction for eight years after leaving Bri and her older brother at her grandparents’ house when she could no longer care for them. Her rapper father was shot and killed by one of the two local gangs when she was 4. Her favourite aunt is a drug dealer and the family are not always sure there will be enough food to eat. This is a lot to deal with for anyone.

Added to this is the pressure of being searched every day when you get to school just because of your skin colour and knowing that an unarmed boy in the neighbourhood was recently killed by a policeman who was never charged.

This novel is about Bri trying to realise her rapping dream and the lengths she will go to get her family away from the ghetto. It is a story of friendship and family love. It is about dealing with outside influences and still staying true to yourself. It is also about trust and how we often hide ourselves from those who are closest to us.

As a white middle class person of relative privilege, no matter how I try to empathise with the majority of people who live on this planet by listening to and reading their stories, I will never really understand what it is like to live with constant fear, hunger, war, cold, or grief. The goal of Thomas’ work is to shine a light on the issues that many African Americans in the United States face and to shed more light on the Black Lives Matter movement.

This novel is written in the first person, so we look at the world through Bri’s eyes. I found this novel hard to read for a variety of reasons. It was confronting to read about the daily struggle that black kids who live in the ‘hood go through. Just getting to school is a challenge when there is no food in the house, or you fear for your life, or that of your family when guns are everywhere. But mostly because of the language used. It took a while to get used to the “ghetto” speak.  There are references I didn’t totally understand and there are things I have only recently learned (like those with afro hair often wear silk caps to bed to stop the frizz and preserve the natural oils).

Bri, her family and friends use of language became easier as I read, but I am sure I missed some things. It was interesting looking into the world of the rapper as I have never been interested in this genre of music – the way the words are often made up as you go, the difficulty of getting a rhyme just right, and the ability to draw on your experiences and share them with strangers.

Thomas is able to use her experience as a teen rapper to add credibility to the character of Bri. This is a confronting novel which is not to everyone’s taste, but I think is worth the effort.

Reviewed by Sue Mauger

Distributed by: Walker Books Australia
Released: February 2019
RRP: $17.99

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