Growing up where I did, a suburban town within a bus ride of Dublin’s city centre, wasn’t tough, really. You could say I was born and raised in a “good” part of town. There was little trouble, schools were good, families looked out for one another; there was a community spirit that lives to this day, I believe, although I haven’t been back for years. Growing up often means moving on, moving away, sometimes to a better life, sometimes not. Luck and ambition comes into it. The 1970s and early 1980s were challenging for a lot of families around me, but if you were provided, as I was, with a decent education and a start in the jobs market, then you were already winning. Then the crash happened. And it kept on happening.
It’s still happening, for many families all over the world. Jason Beech‘s novel, City of Forts, tells of one such family, who live in an unnamed town near an unnamed city, somewhere in Midwest, USA, who are in danger of falling into the cracks of society. Caitlin Nardilo is a single mother to Ricky and Brett. She holds down three jobs so she can keep food on the table. Her husband has long since headed to the Coast and is almost completely absent from their lives. Ma doesn’t know that when she heads out to work, Ricky, 13, leaves his younger brother alone in the house for the day so he can escape to the City of Forts with his friends Liz, Bixby, and Tanais. The City of Forts is a piece of land upon which there is an disused factory and a series of abandoned houses. The four friends lay claim to this place and make it their playground. It’s the final summer before they all go to high school. Ricky is in love with Liz, who for her part is unsure about where her life is going to go. Bixby is on the run from social services, having fled his foster home, and is now among the ruins. Tanais is a young Black girl, new to the group, but still figuring out if she belongs with the group or not. They are from the Town, but the City looms nearby, offering hope and menace in equal measure.
We get used to seeing them act around each other. They make do with what cards life has dealt them, and there’s a certain sense, especially with Ricky, that this is going to be as good as it gets. Then, at the very start of the story, Liz falls through a floor and literally lands on a dead body. Not knowing what else to do, because calling the cops will only lead to them being denied access to their secret playground, they decide to bury the body, but not before Ricky steals the money from the dead man’s wallet and takes a look at his ID. This course of action brings the group to the attention of Tarantula Man, the leader of a local criminal gang, the Ghost Boys, who wants to know what happened to his friend. The children are in danger, but don’t trust an adult to help them out.
Ricky’s only saviour is Floyd, a homeless man who seems to be the boy’s guardian angel. Then there’s Mr Vale, and his son Charley, who seem to want to help, but may have an agenda of their own.
Jason Beech has an amazing way with words and characters. His evocative turn of phrase, and his ability to guide us through this story from Ricky’s point of view is breathtaking in its simplicity and execution. You can sense the impending doom from the very first chapter, and this feeling never goes away even in the novel’s quiter moments. City of Forts is beautifully paced throughout, and every character is given their moment to shine. By the time the book comes to a close, each of their lives have changed, not always for the better, it has to be said. Each of their actions demand consequences. Jason Beech is wise enough to allow his characters grow and become young adults. What they do with this new-found maturity is a story for another day. City of Forts is a compelling coming-of-age story, that crosses over into crime fiction, with teenage characters that are likeable and frustrating, just as they should be.