The corner of Market Street and Spring Gardens, a boy who is almost, but not quite, a man flicks a plastic lighter until it yields a small yellow flame. His hood is pulled up around his face and a JD Sports bag slices a diagonal across his back. Behind him, people stand and watch, their phones raised to catch his movements, the buzz of burglar alarms and police sirens echoing across the city. The shop window is already broken. He steps over smashed glass to reach his hand in through the security bars, to the plastic dummy. She has a blank white face: no eyes, no nose, no mouth. But she has breasts, and hip bones – visible beneath her scarlet summer dress. He holds his lighter against a fold of material.
Before the Fire begins with a short prologue set in the Manchester riots of 2011. Once Butler has reminded us of events at this time – the riots, the fires, the looting that spread to cities throughout the UK after the shooting of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham – she travels back two months and introduces us to Stick.
Seventeen-year-old Stick lives with his mum on an estate. Her mental health is precarious – we first meet her awake in the middle of the night, checking all the plug sockets in the house are off; Stick says this has been happening since he was eight. Stick’s dad left just after the death of Sophie, Stick’s sister. He’s remarried with children. Stick still sees him but gets frustrated at his dad’s attempts to make him think about the future, particularly with regards to work. All Stick’s focused on at the moment is his road trip to Spain with his best mate Mac.
They’ve bought a V-reg Ford Fiesta with 120,000 miles on the clock for £250. They’re not expecting it to get them back to Manchester, they’re not even sure they’re coming back.
‘We’re driving. Me and – ‘ Stick looked over to where Mac and Lainey were dancing hip to hip – ‘him.’
She frowned. ‘Why? It’s like two hours on a plane.’
Because that wasn’t the point. Because the journey was the point. Because he’d never left Manchester, he’d never been anywhere, he’d never even been to the fucking seaside. And if they drove, then he’d have been to all those places, not just Manchester and Malaga, he’d have been everywhere in between.
The night before they leave, Mac decides they’re having a party in a city-centre bar. Stick arrives at Mac’s early to prepare:
‘Boobs!’ Mac shouted, standing in the doorway of his flat, a coconut in each hand. ‘Am I a fucking genius or am I actually a fucking genius?’ He was wearing electric-blue shorts with a white drawstring, his calves fat and pink above white sports socks.
‘You’re a fucking knobhead,’ Stick laughed.
At the party, Mac pulls Lainey, one of their friends, but later, when they’re all ‘proper drunk’, Lainey has ‘a paddy’ and Mac decides to go home. He asks Stick whether he’s coming with him but Stick’s met a girl and decides to stay. As Stick’s in the toilet on the receiving end of a blow job, Mac’s involved in a stabbing on a Manchester street. Their road trip to Spain’s over before it’s begun.
The rest of the novel considers the aftermath of the incident and Stick’s friendship with a girl, J, whom he meets on a piece of wasteland. The story builds back to the moment in the riots the reader’s introduced to in the novel’s prologue.
At the time of the 2011 riots, there was some interesting TV news footage where reporters interviewed teenagers involved in the rioting and looting. Faces covered, they talked about the lack of jobs in their area; the lack of support for them and places where they could go following government cuts to council budgets which had led to the closure of many youth services; they talked about how dispiriting it is to see lifestyles that are out of reach to them. This is the essence of Stick’s story; his life’s not been easy and although you could argue that many people’s aren’t, his is without the buffers of money and opportunity.
Butler doesn’t make Stick entirely blameless though, he mentions the anger management sessions he’s had to attend and he repeatedly refuses his dad’s help. He’s also a teenager and experimenting with drugs and alcohol, staying out and not letting his mum know where he is are also part of his story.
It’s clear that Butler’s done her research – in the acknowledgements she mentions a number of groups of teenagers she’s spoken to and worked with and also that she looked at the Manchester riots for her MSc in Urban Studies – but, as the best novels do, the story wears this research lightly. It underpins it, it doesn’t overpower it.
If it’s not clear yet, I absolutely loved this book. Butler’s prose is clear and precise; her characters brim with life, and the story’s convincing. Before the Fire also has one of the best – and one of the smartest – endings I’ve ever read.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.