The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla

The Blurb On The Back:

When life knocks you down, can you learn to fight back?

Told over the course of the ten rounds of his first fight, this is the story of amateur boxer Sunny.  A seventeen-year-old feeling isolated and disconnected in the city he’s just moved to, Sunny joins a boxing club to learn to protect himself after a racist attack.  He finds the community he’s been desperately seeking at the club, and a mentor in trainer Shobu, who helps him find his place in the world.

But racial tensions are rising in the city, and when a Far Right march through Bristol turns violent, Sunny is faced with losing his new best friend to radicalisation. 

You can order THE BOXER by Nikesh Shukla from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

17-year-old Sunil (known as Sunny) moved to Bristol from London 3 months ago with his mum and dad.  His dad has a heart condition and the family moved so he could get more specialised help but his dad’s condition has worsened and now he’s in a hospice while his mum works several low-paid jobs trying to keep things together in the flat that they rent.  Quiet and reserved, his only friend is Madhu (the first person he met when he started his new college and the only other non-white person who goes there) and all he wants to do is focus on his studies to get into university, like his dad wants.

Sunny’s life changes forever though when he is the victim of a violent, racist attack at the train station.  Badly injured and left traumatised with PTSD, all he wants to do is hide in his bedroom but a chance encounter with taxi driver Surinder leads him to the Easton Boxing Gym, former Olympic boxer-turned-trainer, Shobu and Keir, a talented young boxer with the potential to go all the way.  As Sunny trains with Keir the two develop a friendship but Sunny’s mum disapproves of violence and Sunny’s still dealing with the aftereffects of his attack and then there’s Keir’s family …

Now Keir and Sunny are facing each other in the ring over 10 rounds, each with a score to settle.  The next ten rounds will see Sunny confront what brought him and Keir to this point and who he really wants to be …

Nikesh Shukla’s contemporary YA novel is an interesting look at racism and how boxing can give a person discipline, confidence and self-respect but while it’s interesting to have a book look at white extremist radicalisation, Keir’s character and motivation is underdeveloped, as is his friendship with Sunny and I never bought into why Sunny wanted to save him, which is a shame because there’s a lot that’s good about this book and it’s worth a look.

I’ll begin by setting out what’s good about this book.  First and foremost, Sunny is an interesting character – quiet, reserved and gay (out to his mother but not his father) Shukla does a good job of portraying the close relationship he has with his mother and the more complicated feelings he has for his father, who has always been a distant figure more interested in working than his son.  Particularly good are the scenes where Sunny struggles to go and visit his father in the hospice and a scene where he talks to Surinder about it is genuinely heartbreaking.  Also well done is the friendship between Sunny and Madhu, a confident young woman comfortable in her own skin and happy to challenge the status quo at her college, calling her teacher out on the low rates of diversity but always with a sense of wry humour.

Shukla shows Sunny’s stunned reaction to experiencing racism in a completely relatable way, eloquently depicting the hurt and confusion while also slyly highlighting how ridiculous the racism is (e.g.Sunny is called the ‘P’ slur when he is in fact Indian and there’s a beautifully shown scene where Keir’s family make a point of not serving him pork because they assume he’s Muslim, while serving him beef – not realising that he’s a Hindu (albeit not an observant one).  The scene where Sunny is subject to a racist attack is horrific and brutal and Shukla does an excellent job of depicting the psychological and physical trauma that it causes him.  This in turn lends power to the boxing scenes where Sunny slowly comes to terms with what happened to him – his relationship with Shobu helping to give him discipline and internal strength, even as it leads to conflict with his mother.

The problem for me comes with Keir who I found to be under-developed and that’s a shame because there’s a lot of potential with him.  Although Shukla is good at showing Keir as someone who struggles with living with and loving his overtly racist father and older brother while also knowing that it’s wrong, I found it easier to buy into his crush on Madhu more than his friendship with Sunny.  This is partly because there isn’t enough page time given to showing their friendship develop (and I’ll admit that I initially wondered if part of it was that Sunny was attracted to Keir, although this isn’t developed at all) and then the break up of their friendship is driven by a hitherto unheard of uncle who Keir was supposedly close to, which felt artificial.  The white supremacist march throbs with menace and hatred but I needed Keir and Sunny’s confrontation to carry more weight and emotional resonance than it actually does.  Ultimately, Shukla’s message seems to be that if you live with racists then you will become a racist, which seems overly simplistic.

The narrative device of telling the story through the course of the ten rounds of a fight is clever and works well for the most part and the way Shukla chooses to end it works for Sunny and his character, even though I wanted a bit more of a resolution with Keir.

Ultimately there’s a lot that’s good in this book and I think that it’s worth a few hours of your time but the central theme of racism and white extremism didn’t come together for me and that is a disappointment.  

THE BOXER was released in the United Kingdom on 27th June 2019.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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