The pelican lifted up its head and beak, and shook them, wobbling its neck, trying to force the pigeon further down the sac of its throat. The pigeon was still very much alive; its fight-back stretched the skin of the pelican’s gullet until it was almost translucent, with the dark outline of the smaller bird clearly visible. It was a ferocious fighter, and Peter found he couldn’t tear his gaze away as the pigeon succeeded in struggling back up the pelican’s gullet and into its beak, and for a moment it looked as if it might manage to get free.

I love a good metaphor and this one on page 254 of Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days perfectly sums up the struggle for political survival between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. But who is swallowing whom and why? Do politicians need motivation other than the lust for political power.  I’d say no, but there has to be a catalyst for the declaration of war and a power grab.

Cue riots on the streets of London, ostensibly triggered by the death of a black man under police restraint. In reality, however, the resulting peaceful demonstration is hijacked by those with other agendas. Look back at the UK riots of 2011 to see how events escalated into anarchy; a trajectory mirrored in Slovo’s novel with the impact on individuals and key players depicted in mesmerising detail.

Cathy Mason – a middle-aged single mother, living in the disadvantaged, restless and soon-to-be-condemned Lovelace estate, desperately trying to keep her community together. Her life is complicated by her love for Banji, the only man she has or will ever love, although he appears not to deserve her.

Commissioner Yares, Metropolitan police chief, the Prime Minister’s man, who starts his new job on the day that all hell breaks loose. A sitting duck (or should that be pigeon?) for the Home Secretary, who, while the Prime Minister is attending important negotiations elsewhere, loses no opportunity to score political points against perceived incompetence and “soft” policing.

The Home Secretary and his women: wife and PA/lover. No political drama would be complete without shenanigans of this ilk.

The Prime Minister – more off the page than on. Nevertheless, a smooth operator, not to be under estimated.

Slovo punches with both fists exposing the machinations of the powerful, the cynicism at the heart of the Met’s recruitment policies, and the sincere, but ultimately powerless hearts of the common man. That would be powerless in the face of higher authorities, but also in matters of love. The lovers (Banji and the home secretary’s PA) providing the most unexpected twists of them all in a narrative covering ten critical days that – like the riots at their centre – cannot be predicted.

This is a gutsy read;  a warts-and-all  journal of each main character’s experience, sometimes with overlapping timelines. (So reader, pay attention.) Interspersed are redacted confidential police reports, using police jargon, for the forthcoming inquiry. (Thankfully there is a helpful glossary at the back). These reports are chilling in their emotional distance, but they do provide another more objective viewpoint of police decisions that outsiders (and politicians) are quick to criticise. Further balance is provided by the experience of Chief Inspector Billy Ridgeton, who is called in from a day off to help out with the escalating unrest and doesn’t come off duty for a week.

I’ve been meaning to read Slovo since publication of The Ice Road in 2004. Glad to have rectified that omission in my reading now and am looking forward to acquainting myself with her back catalogue.  In producing this novel, filled with players and their power plays, Slovo has herself played an absolute blinder!


© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016