Growing up in Hackney with his loving but troubled single mum, fifteen-year-old Donny’s life has been shaped by poverty, crime and casual violence, including grooming by a local gang. When his mum is jailed for drugs offences, Donny is fostered outside London to the Hertfordshire countryside. Life in the rural Home Counties is a bit like landing on another planet but doing work experience on the Hertford Union Canal, Donny feels like he’s finally found his purpose.
When Donny’s posh new friend Zoe is offered a dubious modelling audition in London, the pair decide to ‘borrow’ a canal barge and navigate the 29 locks down to Kings Cross. As they start out on their journey the future looks as unpromising as Zoe’s fake audition. But as each lock is navigated and conquered, their adventures take on a new dimension, and life will never be the same again.
Fast-paced, tragic and tender, 29 Locks is an unflinching depiction of urban teen life.
I am extremely grateful to the author and the publisher for providing me with a proof copy of 29 Locks in exchange for an honest review. In what is becoming a bit of a theme at the moment, I must apologise for the delay in posting this review!
I feel like I am striking it lucky with narrative voices in the books I am reading at the moment! Donny is a great narrator – his voice feels fresh and real and engaging, and he is another character, like Aoife in Iron Annie, that I refuse to believe does not exist in real life. There is no authorial barrier between Donny’s voice and the reader; his use of Multicultural London English (as helpfully glossed at the back of the book!) feels authentic and individual, and his outlook and humour bring him to life so vividly. I missed him when I finished reading 29 Locks, and I think that’s the best compliment I can pay a character!
The story itself is great – there are moments of sadness and tragedy, but there is also an adventure, and one that is both unusual and very funny. I loved the scenes of Donny and Zoe escaping down the canal – it was especially engaging for me, as I lived in Herfordshire briefly, and I can picture that stretch of the canal so vividly. We lived right by it in Ware, and I just loved the idea of walking down the towpath and seeing Donny, Zoe and Ziggy the dog cruise by on Zuma Jay! It all feels very original – I don’t think I have come across a YA novel that I could compare 29 Locks to, it’s so much Donny’s individual story. The different sections of Donny’s life keep the book fast-paced and attention-grabbing, while allowing for small moments of reflection which add depth and tenderness to the story.
I gather that this book is getting a great reception among teenagers, and I can imagine that lots of young people will see themselves in Donny. 29 Locks does not shy away from the realities of growing up in poverty, and it is an eye-opening read, but most of all, it is a tender, fully-realised portrait of a wonderful character that everyone needs to meet. I am firmly #TeamDonny, and if you read this book, as I hope many of you will, you’ll immediately see why.
29 Locks by Nicola Garrard is published by Hope Road and is available to purchase here.