Friday 30 September 2016

Books: Absorbing, engrossing debut tale about belonging

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa, Little, Brown, €22.55, Hardback

Conor O'Nolan

Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30

Power of protest: WTO demonstration in Seattle where 40,000 took part, is the backdrop for Sunil Yapa's debut novel
Power of protest: WTO demonstration in Seattle where 40,000 took part, is the backdrop for Sunil Yapa's debut novel

In 1999, at the end of November, over 40,000 thousand people gathered in Seattle, to protest at the launch of the World Trade Organisation's Ministerial Conference. This incomprehensible number of people, protesting a whole manner of different causes, might seem like a strange event to choose as the backdrop for your debut novel, but in Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa took this set of very real events and used them to craft an engrossing narrative about protest, authority and belonging.

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The book opens with Victor, a homeless teenager living under a bridge, readying himself to go about his day where he will try and sell drugs to the protesters whom he hopes are just ageing hippies. His attempts are thwarted by the crowd's lack of interest in his wares and after a nearly disastrous encounter with a mounted police officer, he is rescued by Kingfisher, a seasoned activist with a storied past. She introduces him to her group of non-violent activists charged with blocking a key junction leading to the conference centre. It just so happens that the chief of police charged with trying to keep all the roads to the conference open, is Victor's estranged, adoptive father…

Rather than just showing us Victor's progress through out the day the novel is set, there is a rotating cast of characters, providing a much wider lens through which to view the event. John Henry is another committed activist and when he walks through the crowd, the reader is given an evocative description of what surrounds him : "My people. They smelled of onion and cigarette and sex, the human animal musk of sixty beautiful human bodies beneath their beautiful blue tarps and he raised his arms to the sky and breathed them deep. Around him they marched and they danced: they chanted and they sang."

However authentic and wonderful the descriptions of protest are, that's not all the book has to offer. It is truly multi-dimensional, even shifting to the police officers tasked with supervising the protest. At one point we see Officer Park trying to banter with an unimpressed colleague: ""I mean what's going on here, Ju. Are they protesting the world?" […] "Are they protesting the world?" she said flatly. "That's what you want to know?" "Yeah." "Which one, Park?" "Which one what?" "Which world, pendejo? Yours or theirs?"" This dry exchange shows Yapa's ability to switch between points of view, from rich descriptions of the chaos on the streets to this lazy, dad-like banter.

The book isn't really about the protests per se. It's about the people involved and the physical and emotional journeys they took over the course of the day. Sure, there's some people shouting about globalisation and the environment in the background, but the main narrative is more concerned about the people involved and their attempts to forge a sense of belonging. Yapa's politics are probably a bit further left of centre than the average author, but the book never feels like it's trying to teach you a lesson about anything: less a polemic, more an account of the lives of a handful of people over the course of a day.

One of the novel's most remarkable traits is its sheer diversity. Rather than just having a brooding white man take us on a tour of all that's wrong with the world, we are given a racially diverse set of characters highlighting different issues. By far the most interesting inclusion is the conference delegate from Sri Lanka. Dr Charles Wickramsinghe is introduced as he makes his way to America, where he is supposed to have a meeting with Bill Clinton, to get the last signature his country needs to allow them to join the WTO. His plans are disrupted by the protests resulting in one of the most interesting situations in the entire novel, where a protester encounters someone he's essentially protesting on behalf of, seemingly without ever meaningfully engaging with the idea that they may not feel quite the same way.

Yapa, whose father is Sri Lankan, did an undergraduate degree in economic geography, so it seems he has a talent for turning the driest of topics into new perspectives. Your Heart is a captivating book born out of the unlikeliest of subject matters. Its richly detailed prose is a little slow to get going, but once you're orientated in its world, it is utterly absorbing.

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