The Distant Sound of Violence by Jason Greensides is a beautifully written, poignant and perceptive account of a group of teenagers whose identities are emerging within the urban world of early nineties London. Right from the start, Greensides presents vivid and original characters who leave their imprint long after the story ends. Throughout the novel, it’s the sensitivity and strength of characterisation which highlights the real skill of this particular writer. Greensides displays an astonishing ability to conjure up an entire background and history to his characters while sometimes offering what appears to be the briefest glimpse into their life.
While violence is an ever-present possibility and theme, most of the story occurs on its periphery as the two main characters, Ryan and Nathan, shuffle between personal loyalties, desires and fears. Without either sentimentality or glamour, the descriptive style of the narrative is something approaching sociological poetry – objective, concise, stark and, because of this, heartbreaking. Although there are many instances of this throughout the story, one example in particular illustrates the powerful and immediate impact of this kind of writing.
Justin, someone already immersed in gang culture, displays an almost sadistic cruelty towards his younger brother, Scott, adopting familiar bullying tactics as he does so. The backdrop to this, however, is the death of their mother and although this detail is understated (hence its force), its traumatic consequences permeate a scene in which 10 year old Scott unwittingly interrupts his brother as he’s bringing down Christmas decorations from the loft. Justin has just found an angel which triggers a specific memory of both his mother and his little brother but the plastic figurine also becomes a slightly perverse source of sexual stimulation.
The psychological complexity of this short scene is staggering. Coaxing his brother into fetching the Christmas tree from the loft, Justin closes the trapdoor shut and disappears into his bedroom with the implicit intention of masturbating over the doll. His frustration and his pain and his confusion collide as he feels ‘the place on the right wrist where his mum had once glued her hand back into place.’ He presses down until the hand snaps off and in this split second, we feel the agonising weight of emotions which lack any effective outlet for their expression.<br>There is a real moral struggle involved as Justin unlocks his brother’s makeshift prison and sees Scott ‘sat between some boxes and crates full of his parents’ stuff, curled upright in the foetal position.’ Hugging his brother more tightly than anyone he’s ever held before, his sense of remorse extends far beyond the confines of these cramped four walls.
The detail, care and compassion with which Greensides portrays Justin and Scott is true for all the characters in the book, no matter how they behave in the external world. It’s this which marks out Greensides as a writer to watch.
At its finest, The Distant Sound of Violence combines the sparse realism of a Ken Loach film with the metaphorical resonances of a Graham Greene novel. As a result, Greensides creates an emotive and compelling story which doesn’t finish as the book draws to a close but lingers, curious and haunting, in the mind.