London. AKA The Smoke. Home of the cheery, never-say-die Cockney, who likes to dress up in his Pearly King costume, eat jellied eels and talk in rhyming slang. Got that, me ol’ China?
Well that’s all the stereotypes out of the way, so let’s take a look at present day London, shall we? And if you want a realistic picture, then Vicky Newham’s just the person. This author made quite a splash with her debut, Turn a Blind Eye, which introduced readers to DI Maya Rahman of the Met Police and has recently been longlisted for the CWA John Creasy Debut Dagger.
Rahman has Bangladeshi heritage but was brought up in the East End of London, where both books are set. That local knowledge is about to come in mighty handy as a fancy artisan soup business is torched on Brick Lane. The arson attack happened as a flash mob danced nearby, a protest against the gentrification of the area. The participants soon melted away into the shadows when the fire took hold.
It is believed one of the co-owners was at the soup shop when the blaze happened, but inside, fire officers find two bodies huddled together in a bed. Who is the mystery woman and what was she doing there? It’s just one of the myriad questions which are set to tax Rahman and her team.
Opposite the torched premises stands an old fashioned store which Rahman remembers well from her childhood. In those days it was run by Mr and Mrs Feldman and Rahman has happy memories of spending her pocket money on sweets there. Now only Rosa Feldman remains. Her husband died a year ago and she seems determined to hang on to the faltering business until the bitter end, much to the dismay of her children, who want their mother to retire and move out of the area.
Rosa is happy to live out her days in an area she knows and loves, but when a Star of David is crudely carved into the shop exterior things take a dangerous turn. The scenes between Rahman and Rosa are a joy. Both have strong roots in the East End and a shared history that ties them together. As this tale unfolds, that history is about to become ever more important…
Out of the Ashes has modern-day London, its problems and its triumphs, running through it like the good old River Thames. Newham depicts the city in a way that’s clear-sighted with no holds barred and she really brings the place to life for her readers. This is a book with many topical and relevant themes running through it, including the aforementioned gentrification, race, integration and immigration. In an updated version of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, there’s even a young immigrant boy who gets caught up in a criminal gang. He might be dismissed as a ‘street rat’ by some, but 10-year-old Ali is a vital, poignant part of this beautifully plotted book.
Author Vicky Newham taught in the East End for many years and she uses her intimate knowledge of the area to great effect, creating a vibrant, up-to-the-minute portrait of a city in flux. Maya Rahman is developing into a great protagonist. She’s a woman with many layers and the more we learn about her, the more compelling she appears. In the first book I really enjoyed the way she struggled to be true to both her Bangladeshi and British roots. In Out of the Ashes, the Bangladeshi side has faded a little, which is a pity, although it will be interesting to see how things develop.
Out of the Ashes is a great follow up to Turn a Blind Eye, by an author who really seems to be hitting her stride – and there are enough loose ends here to leave us longing for book three.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars