Book Review: The Upper World, by Femi Fadugba

Posted: July 5, 2022 in Chat
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The Upper World, by Femi Fadugba. Published by Penguin, 2021. ISBN 978 0 241 50561 8

Warning: Contains Spoilers.

The Upper World is a young adult novel.

It is an extraordinary book; it is also a difficult book, for many reasons. 

The intellectual range of the book has depth. So are its cultural affiliations.

It is prefaced with a snapshot description of Plato’s Cave. Later we encounter Einstein’s Relativity, higher maths and physics. There is also an appendix giving the mathematical formulas, and workings the characters encounter and produce throughout the book.

Is time-travel possible? It is now considered a physical impossibility according to logic, and to physics as it now stands. 
But if we bring in, say, Borges’ aleph concept, and align it with Plato’s cave… the Upper World as Plato’s real world outside the cave, and the aleph into the cosmologists-physicist’s point space-time as truly one, all space-time, then….

Our main narrator is Esso Adenam.   –  And what a great name. How to choose your character’s names, a fine art, and here, bang-on.

But no, the chapters are interspersed between the two main characters as their lives entangle: Esso, and Rhia.
Fifteen years stand between them, but their lives were always joined. The same cramped corner of South London, although for Rhia technology has moved on and we encounter gadgets and gizmos, expertise, in her life, that were not available in Esso’s world at her age.

The mix of cultures is really quite exciting – Esso is in raptures at one point over the smell of the Benin food cooking in the flat below; a school friend gives a yell of pleasure that carries in it many African timbres. 

Among the mix of the book’s concerns, is that of inevitability, of free-will. Esso is introduced to us, saying, 
It takes an impressive mix of stupidity and bad luck not to be in a gang, but find yourself in the middle of a gang war.

This is an instance of lack of choice that inner city black teens face. This is inevitability in practice. To be a ‘roadman’: the macho-brag, knife-carrying fixed male role. Their influence spreads throughout the communities, unacknowledged, unrecognized, yet dominant.
This intro comment also shows Femi’s ability to handle registers of text and meaning. What seems a straight-forward comment, is laced with irony, self-blame, fraught responsibility.

Later, with Rhia, we have,
‘We talked about the concept of ‘choice’ last week. Have you had any interesting reflections since?’
‘Yeah, actually,’ I replied to Anahera. ‘I don’t think free will exists. We don’t choose shit.’ 

‘Look, I don’t think it’s a crazy exaggeration to say that 98% of the kids who are born into shit situations grow up and die in the same shit.’

She looked over her glasses at me. ‘And what about the other 2%?’

‘Are you serious?’

‘All anyone wants to talk about is the 2%. I literally just told you that 98% of people in this world don’t get a chance. 98%! Why the fuck are we talking about the lucky 2%?’

The chances of climbing out of one’s social and economic predicament, with all the judiciary and dominant cultural forces arrayed against you, are minimal.

And yet Esso clicks in the maths class, it opens his mind; Nadia, Rhia’s to-be ma, is very bright. But where can this go?

We see Esso, later, blind, and living back on the estate, but a physics genius. He reflects on the crux event, caught centre of a gang war between Spark’s gang and D’s TAS gang. Knives and guns. The police move into the mix. Esso is stabbed; Nadia loses her mind.

But he cannot hate or blame D, he always was a friend, it was ‘the situation’ they were caught up in to blame.
TAS? Talk After Shanking: the old American macho hard-boiled gangster TV talk. The cheap, tacky bluster update of the cheap, tacky, Shoot First Ask Questions Later.

To be a minority in a different, seemingly uncaring culture; uprooted from background, extended family, how do you make an identity that not’s to be ignored? Self-worth?
When you are sixteen.  
And these feel to me like real sixteen year olds. We recognise them; we can trust their depiction. 

Among the shocking incidents we encounter here – daily life on literally a knife-edge (an image that permeates the book) – is an incident where Rhia and Olivia, two adoptees, are confronted with the terrible news that their adoptive parents are selling up and moving out of London. Way out. 
And that the new council can only support one adoptive child.
They have lived together as a ‘family’ for two years +, and now one has to leave. Just before Christmas.

And yet the crux event of the book has an anomalous element – what causes Esso’s blindness, and Nadia’s mental problems? 
Is it possible to step out of one’s moment, and enter the Upper World?
But everyone who has ever gone there suffers for it.

The book gives a genuine sense of how lives are lived, of being sixteen in an inner-city school. The writer skillfully negotiates a wealth of events and ideas, of emotional highs and lows, and we go with him, because he earns our trust.

And yet the book is pointedly not about theory, but about application. Whether intended or not. It is an equation, and by only focussing on one side of the equation we become blind to the other.

Take, for instance the gang-posturing: there is most importantly the actual physical violence. As we too painfully know, people die. Too often. For fatuous reasons. By giving ultimate value to status, then there has to be an equal value to the means of its achievement.
To shift that initial focus to a more positive position. But the dead-weight of moribund societal structures make this near-impossible.
‘Near-impossible,’ – there it is again, that 2%.

Femi himself bears out this awareness of the need for application of theory; after his science-related studies, he studied to achieve Master of Public Administration.

The one problem I find with the book is the lack of a glossary. We encounter terminology here I am unfamiliar with: mandam, fam, many others.
Although I applaud him for not doing; it would be like selling-off your cultural markers.

Femi Fadugba has a MA in Material Science and quantum computing, from Oxford.
He tells us in interview that it was a school caretaker giving him Physics for Dummies turned his world around. Later he contacted the caretaker, to find that he had himself a Phd in Physics, but ‘ was unable to pursue it.’ 
This is the real world. And that hurts.

The Upper World is currently being filmed by Netflix.

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Glad you liked it too

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