WHOA! This novel is an amazing coming of age story about dreams, values, love, family, organized religion, crime and figuring things out for yourself against many differing backdrops and options. The Ends is a neighborhood in Bristol, UK. The first thing you see after the table of contents is the Hughes family tree: Sayon is the son of Erica Hughes Stewart, who ditched her maiden name and family totally when she married a preacher and then later ditched her son because he did not measure up to his parents’ rigid expectations.. The family is notorious, with many who can claim one or more jail stays and they are fiercely close and protective of one another. Like much of the extended family, “Say” wound up living with Nanny, the Hughes matriarch. She will support every one of them no matter what they do. A very few members of the family moved on to become wage earners in the traditional sense. Say has a dream, going back to his childhood, of saving enough money to buy a large house with beautiful grounds that sits in not far from his rough and tumble home. One of his earliest memories was walking there with his mother.
Say’s best friend is his cousin Cuba, who the family calls Midnight because of his dark dark skin. Cuba is a year behind Say in school. Say excels in school and connects in his early years with Shona and Elia two girls who are also exceptional students. Shona’s father Lyle is a preacher and Elia is Muslim. Cuba is always in trouble, does poorly in school and eventually quits, but he becomes a very successful drug lord. When we first meet Say, he is dealing drugs for Cuba,, trying to save money to buy his dream property. He has known Shona since elementary school. They are soulmates. Shona is making headway in the business side of the music industry. Elia has married Say’s cousin Hakim and they run a popular bakery. He has a cousin Winnie, addicted to crack, who lives on the steps of Lyle’s church, an uncle Michael, who has an intellectual disability, and maybe is dangerous, Uncles and older cousins who perpetually play cards in Nanny’s back yard, a couple of three year old boys who are his cousin Jamaal’s kids to two different women and the rest of the family who pop up continuously throughout the story, with back stories and expectations that those in the money will share and they do.
What is simultaneously amazing and difficult about McKenzie’s writing is that much of the dialogue is laden with Jamaican and Somali patois, some that becomes clear in context and some that I could only guess at. Once I felt I’d figured out as much as I could, e.g. that “Wagwan” means, “What’s going on?” and “Enuh” means “you know” and that the word, “man” is often used when someone is talking about him/herself, I ran out of luck with a number of words that were used a lot. And, glory be: The Internet has them. One of my favorites was the phrase, “He kissed his teeth,” which I assumed was a tongue click or tch. Instead, it’s a unique Jamaican way of expressing disapproval that’s hard to describe or reproduce but can be found on Internet videos. Part hiss, part pursed lips, part little whistle. Since the same words unfamiliar to many readers are used frequently, I recommend looking them up early and you won’t ever be distracted by them again, because the dialogue in this book is one of it’s best features and instead of being stuck on the patois, it’s easy to learn the words and read it fluidly.
As Say navigates through his world of good and evil, the prospect of losing Shona and confusion about what matters most, the story remains compelling, never boring. McKenzie was only 23 when this debut novel was published. I hope this means his gift will keep us up at night through many more characters, some extra new words in our lexicons and stories you want to follow and follow and follow. Highly, highly recommend.