books, fiction

Book Review: High-rise Mystery

(Sharna Jackson, 2019, London, Knights Of)

This review contains spoilers.

As with all books, especially children’s and young adult books, I came to High-rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson with the hope I’d learn something as well as just enjoy an ‘easy read’, away from the grim, quotidian news landscape. This book exceeded my expectations on both counts, yet is also highly relevant to the news with its focus on Black Lives Matter campaigns, community-police relations and immigration.

But firstly, I just want to say I love that an 11-year-old child knows that her friend, an art teacher called Hugo, is gay. It’s plain as day to 11-year-old Anika and her sister Norva, 13, who live with their dad, Joe in a London high-rise. ‘We thought he was gay’. And that’s it. Acceptance.

Sisters Nik and Norva are wonderful characters. Nik is logical, working her way through lists and creating files for investigations. Norva, the older one with ‘hormones’, reacts more to things emotionally, with ‘her waters’ and ‘her bones’. Their investigation kept me guessing until the end as the book’s such good fun. There’s lots of clues and misdirection, and the friendship between Norva and George is so funny and heart-warming! Norva’s prickly sense of humour – always kissing her teeth, missing a community meeting to watch Death in Paradise – is, however, underlined with a sharp awareness of who she is. She doesn’t suffer fools, at all: ‘Your gaslighting doesn’t work on us… Yeah, it’s when you make people think they’re going crazy, on purpose, when they’re not’. This concept is another part of the quotidian news landscape, and something that we need to pay attention to. Racism isn’t an imagined problem and people are not crazy for wanting things to change.

Among all the detective work, the book is direct about racism and discrimination. The local publican tells Nik not to remember to tell her dad about his lock-ins, and when Nik uploads a video to YouTube to prove her dad’s innocence the top comment is ‘the black guy did it’. This hurts to read: that’s Nik’s dad. That’s Joe Alexander, single dad and caretaker, in more ways than one. To some, he is just the nameless ‘black guy’, straight in the firing line of blame.

In a later anecdote, Mrs Kowalski tells the girls that her husband was badly beaten by the police when they moved to London in 1968. Mrs Kowalski is Joe’s alibi but their shared fear of the police means she’s been unable to help with the case: “‘He said keep quiet, or he’d get fired… I hate the Police,’ she spat. ‘Not on our side’.” This is the fear that is alive in Black and migrant communities, and sometimes it takes a book written for younger readers to make us all see it.

Why Joe is excluded from the local pub lock-ins, why the top comment on a video blames the ‘black guy’ for a crime, why a Polish man was beaten up by the police in London and what it means to be gay are just some of the conversations High-rise Mystery could and should stimulate in families. All Sharna Jackson’s characters have a part to play in this novel and their being Black, White, Polish, Asian, gay, disabled or in single-parent homes is not the main driver of their parts; it’s one part of their whole personality.

Having conversations is something writers hope for: that young readers can speak to their parents, caregivers and each other about what makes us ,‘us’. And what can make us better and more accepting of others.

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