"When you're fifteen," writes Jay, protagonist of Lucas' hard hitting debut Turf, "everything matters." This is the book's opening sentence, and with such high octane stakes at the core of this powerful tale, it sums up all the pressures of being a wayward teenager searching for acceptance in all the wrong places perfectly. Set in the inner city borough of Hackney, Turf explores what it means to be a gang member faced with an impossible moral dilemma. Jay, under orders from psychotic gang leader Shads, has to kill classmate Ram, or face the consequences from his own gang, the Blake Street Boyz. As the tagline says, it's a kill or die situation.
So far so familiar, you might think. But Turf approaches its all-too-relevant subject matter in an unfamiliar way. The supporting cast, for one, add some interesting colours to the gritty urban palette. The most obvious example is Jay's aunt Marsha, who he has been obliged to move in with by his mother for fear he will be a bad influence on his younger brother. Ardent Christian Marsha has decked out her flat with numerous religious icons, and coupled with her penchant for preaching the Way of the Lord to Jay, seems to exist as a firebrand preacher who may or may not be Jay's salvation. Then there's Leo, a bizarre, pot-smoking vagrant who spouts cryptic sayings that both unnerve and, paradoxically, offer Jay solace.
Lucas has a canny ear for inner city teen dialogue, and, fittingly enough for a tale like this, is unflinching in his portrayal of the brutal violence that is the way of gang life. He succeeds in cutting through hoodie stereotypes to create a complex, well rounded character in Jay, a fundamentally decent young man who is a victim of spirit sapping circumstance more than anything. In spite of his catastrophic mistakes, he is an easy character to root for, particularly as the novel hurtles towards its inevitably intense conclusion. Turf is certainly not a pleasant read, but it is engaging, thought provoking without being preachy, and surprisingly moving.