Anna Whitwham by Nick Tucker
Punchy prose: author Anna Whitwham. Photograph: Nick Tucker

Anna Whitwham’s debut is vivid and – in a literal sense – punchy. It opens on a canal-side brawl over a girl. From there, we follow Clapton fighter Bobby as he tries to find his way to boxing triumph and love in the macho, clannish East End.

His nemesis both in the ring and on the towpath is Connor, the brutish scion of a gang of Irish travellers – “their lot”. Bobby, styled early as “the Jew” to Connor’s “Gypo”, is the handsome son of a wilted local boxing hero. Theresa – sex, nails and hair extensions – is the girl behind the opening skirmish. She wants Bobby but is intended for Connor. The estate they live on is a “goldfish bowl” of petty politicking and gossip. Enter demure, graceful Chloe: more than a love interest, she is a glimpse of an alternative future for Bobby. Meantime, the big fight – Bobby v. Connor – approaches.

The book is vivid; it isn’t subtle. The violence is graphic, the sex is bare and anatomical. The men are visceral, hot-headed, heavy-fisted – or, like Bobby’s dad, Joe, the spent obverse: decrepit, ridiculous. The women are measured in units of prettiness, tinyness, comfort and passivity. In fact, all the characters are more or less familiar by type, set into a familiar, antagonistic tribal map structured on blood ties and hand-me-down feuds.

In this, the book sits somewhere between soap opera and classical tragedy: two households, both alike in repetitive indignity. This mood is reinforced by a slightly overwrought, pervasive prophetic sense. The book opens, “Bobby knew that he would win,” and builds thickly on foresight and fate. “I don’t want to speed it up…what’s going to happen to me,” says Theresa.

Indeed, crucial to the story is Bobby’s struggle against the power of blood and history to animate him like a puppet. In this “goldfish bowl” characters are largely resigned to swim round in circles, generation after generation. For Bobby, boxing victory and Chloe seem like twin glimmers of an escape route from this often extremely vicious cycle.

Unfortunately, I found that the plodding sense of destiny and the familiar landscape of characters and feuding families combined to glaze the story in a gently anaesthetic predictability. This rather attenuated my curiosity as the story rose to crisis.

Still, if the characters draw on standard stock, they are mostly drawn with an appealingly bold hand. Bobby’s emotional awkwardness and frustration, Theresa’s front of toughness, are well observed. Joe is pathetic, but lucidly realised and sympathetic, too.

Whitwham’s writing is expressive: she works in a spartan, specific lexicon and short sentences which set the narrative to the tense rhythm of a prizefight. Sometimes, a more generous descriptive tone emerges, for instance, to paint the canal – “the black ribbon that tied everyone together” – beautifully, as “black and secret. Hushed, peculiar.”

Whitwham’s affectionate depiction of the boxing scene as manly in a tough, fair, paternal way – a shot at redemption for the bullied and the brawlers – is authentic and convincing. And, despite the shadow of austerity Britain’s indolent youth, this setting – boxing club, tethered tinker ponies, men with greased hair and market gold weighing down their wrists – is often mistakable for the East End of Whitwham’s grandfather, the Hoxton boxer who inspired the novel.

Whitwham has been criticised for this, but I enjoyed it. A slippery sort of modernity make this East End world feel a little more eternal, which fits the mythic-tragic mood and the building sense of the goldfish bowl as a difficult thing to climb out of.

Boxer Handsome by Anna Whitwham is published by Chatto & Windus. RRP: £12.99, ISBN: 9780701188306.

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