On The Come Up - Angie Thomas
Published by Walker Books Australia
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Thanks to Walker Books for providing me with a review copy.
The highly anticipated second novel by Angie Thomas, the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling, multi-award-winning The Hate U Give.
Angie takes us back to the world of Garden Heights in a story about an aspiring teen rapper and what happens when you get everything you thought you wanted. Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least get some streams on her mixtape. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill. But when her mom unexpectedly loses her job, food banks and shut-off notices become as much a part of her life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it – she has to make it.
Normally, I’d be a bit unsure about a follow up to an extremely popular novel, especially one that felt as timely and momentous as Angie Thomas’ first book The Hate U Give (it deserves all the hype), but not this time. I loved The Hate U Give (see review here) and ever since I started seeing tidbits about On the Come Up online I have been waiting desperately to read it. I was not disappointed.
While Angie Thomas had undoubtedly written a well-crafted novel in The Hate U Give, On The Come Up really demonstrates the calibre of her writing. The novel explores multiple and complex characters, relationships and issues: tangled together without clear answers nor solutions. The story is nuanced and deeply empathetic. Angie Thomas is a fantastic storyteller.
On The Come Up is set Garden Heights, the same poor, predominately black, neighbourhood as The Hate U Give. However, it focuses on another part of the community. It is not a sequel thought it takes place after, and references the fall out from, the shooting and protests that occurred. A strong undertone to the story is how institutions and social systems fail this community (education, police, job opportunities).
Bri and her friends go to a school that buses them in to help diversify the school (for funding) but has security guards that harass the black and brown students, and teachers that over discipline them. They have very little recourse to speak up for themselves, and even if they do they are often (sometimes deliberately) misinterpreted and stereotyped.
The poverty Bri and her family have to deal with is messy and consuming. A large part of Bri’s dreams of being a rapper are cemented in her desperation to help her family. There is a clear thread through the story, that while Bri is in many ways just a regular teenager, kids like her are not allowed to be ‘just kids’. Her dream doesn’t get to be simply a passion and her mistakes don't get to be a kid's learning experience.
Bri is a strong and impulsive teenage girl; she’s wickedly funny and a complete nerd. While her relationships are complicated and often difficult including histories of emotional pain, they are always genuine and very deep.
A few highlights for me were:
- Multitude pop culture references, and the depiction of Bri and her friends so confident in their nerd glory
- inclusion of the rap lyrics throughout the novel
- The joy of teenage friendship that shone through the scenes where they’re all chatting on the bus, or hanging out gaming.
- Bri’s mum
I truly appreciated Bri as a main character and as the narrative voice. I’ve seen reviews where people didn’t like her, or found her hard to relate to, but I found her genuine and real. While I definitely think there is an important place for unlikeable female characters, I actually don’t think she fits that. Angie Thomas’s writing brilliantly achieves respecting and representing teenage agency and capability: her characters are never adults in teenage bodies.
Slight tangent - I think that successfully writing authentic teenage characters can sometimes results in an adult reader being put off (or at least seems like this from the criticism I sometimes see) but to me these are the most important and vital books in YA. No matter how much I enjoy them I know I would have *loved* this as a teen. As an adult reader of YA - I am fully on board with the imperative that YA books are for teens and if adults (me) happen to enjoy them, that’s a side bonus.
On the Come Up is an intensely compelling contemporary novel, with rich characters and a strong voice in Bri. It is the sort of book you can enjoy at any age but has an essentially teenage core. You will cry, you will laugh and at times you will be so incredibly angry. Angie Thomas has shown she is the kind of author who will make a lasting impact and I am so excited to see what she does next.