A YA novel about gentrification might sound as sexy as a YA novel about urban planning. Yet the political is effectively intertwined with the personal in Louisa Onomé’s debut novel.
Chinelo and Kate are best friends living in the fictional working-class multicultural neighbourhood of Ginger East in the greater Toronto area. Their bond is like family, so when a brick is thrown through the window of the Ginger Store, a local business owned by Kate’s parents, Chinelo feels personally attacked. But the act of vandalism shatters more than just glass: Kate withdraws from Chinelo, who is thrust into the spotlight as a community activist, and the dynamics among their group of childhood friends begins to tilt.
The five core friends – including soccer player Rafa, larger-than-life Bo (né Beethoven Junior, much to Chinelo and Kate’s cackling delight), and Maree, now a YouTube star – lost touch after their local arcade closed following the shooting death of a young girl. Now Spice of Life, a big-box spice franchise (not necessarily a thing, but okay), threatens to put Ginger Store out of business and drive Kate away, too.
Chinelo gets involved in grassroots community activism to support Ginger East’s shops, in the process clashing with teen capitalists and charities of questionable merit that use profits to entice celebrity philanthropists. The truth is refracted through a kaleidoscope of media channels: Chinelo’s rant blaming “the feds” for Ginger Store’s vandalism goes viral, attracting TV news crews with their own agenda, preconceptions, and sensationalism.
There is some disbelief to swallow in the plot conceit that a broken store window could become a six o’clock news story, but it’s a rare misstep in a novel otherwise remarkable for its authenticity. Onomé, a Nigerian Canadian and organizer for the Brampton, Ontario, Festival of Literary Diversity, brings keen cultural specificity to her characters. Chinelo rolls her eyes as her mom calls her Chi-chi because “there’s a Chi-chi in every Nigerian Igbo family, and I don’t know why my mom is trying to turn me into Chi-chi when I already have a cousin who claimed the name.” But identity isn’t simplified: Chinelo and Rafa bond over parents who were born in the West but retain their cultural nuances. “They clung to an accent and speech pattern that wasn’t really theirs,” Onomé writes.
The snapshot of youth culture feels as fresh as last second’s TikTok swipe. Text messages are laden with nuance: texting in private vs. texting in group chat vs. a shocking moment in which a character makes an actual phone call gives the characters’ communications different weights. Quickly dashed off, often dismissive lines in a chat (“???,” for example) appear as heartfelt expressions of loyalty in contrast to their alternative: the unanswered text. Onomé makes effective use of perspective and style by writing an entire chapter as a one-sided conversation.
The novel also vividly captures the reality of living with a precarious income. Chinelo’s mother struggles to keep her hours as a personal support worker, while her father has followed the promise of better jobs to Calgary. The sacrifice, like Kate’s parents’ dedication to Ginger Store, barely keeps their heads above water. “Kate’s family is like mine. Okay until. Until rent, until surprise bills, until someone loses their job.”
These intersecting issues are given a welcome teen perspective in Chinelo. Through her eyes, the community-building effects of local businesses, the click- and ratings-driven agendas motivating media from the school chat board to the cable news scrawl, and the city’s unwillingness to listen to the voices of marginalized races and socioeconomic classes all fit naturally in one story. It is a perspective that brings big civic issues to where we live.