The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

The Blurb On The Back:

This is Michael’s story.

Join him as he enters the world with tiny feather eyelashes.  Travel from school to college, where he discovers his flock, and comes to terms with his identity as a mixed-race gay teen.  At university, take a seat in the audience and watch him find his wings as a drag artist, The Black Flamingo.

A bold story about discovering that only YOU get the privilege of choosing who you are.  There is power in embracing your uniqueness.  What’s your story?  

You can order THE BLACK FLAMINGO by Dean Atta from Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Michael Angeli was born on 31st October 1999 to a Greek Cypriot mother and a Jamaican father who left shortly after Michael was born.  From an early age, he knows that he’s not like the other kids he hangs around with but he doesn’t know who he is or where he fits in whether that’s at school, with his friends or with his family.  As he hits his teenage years and realises that he’s gay, his confusion and alienation only grow and it isn’t until he reaches university and discovers the Drag Society that things start to make sense …

Dean Atta’s contemporary LGBTQ+ YA novel (sensitively illustrated by Anshika Khullar) is a sympathetic coming of age tale that’s beautifully told in verse and which is a touching reflection of the intersectionality issues of being bi-racial and gay in modern Britain and trying to find your own place and identity.  It’s a beautifully written book that I found very moving and I can well understand why it’s on so many YA prize shortlists.  

I’m going to admit that I was a little hesitant about getting this book because I’m not normally a fan of verse (I had bad experiences with poetry and verse during my school days and I never really got over it).  However there’s nothing pretentious about Atta’s verse – it has a really naturalistic feel and rhythm to it and it never falls back on cheap rhyming couplets.  In fact, I thought that the deceptive simplicity of the verse actually helps to cut through to the core of Michael and his search for his identity because there’s an economy of words there that allows Atta to focus on Michael rather than getting distracted with background descriptions, flashbacks etc.  There is a consequence to that in that it means you never really learn about the side characters such as Kieran (who Michael has a crush on at school), or his best friend Daisy other than what they tell him but given that this is Michael’s story, it didn’t bother me as much as it would have this been normal prose.

Michael is a beautifully drawn character and Atta does such a good job of showing you who he is and how he develops.  I never once failed to believe in who he was or what he was going through and what Atta does so well in this book is show different types of intersectionality in terms of Michael’s experience.  For example, he has to deal with people’s perceptions of him as a black boy (especially well highlighted in the responses he gets when he gets dreadlocks and people call him Bob Marley), his fears about being bullied for being gay at school, then there’s his concerns about coming out as gay to his Jamaican relatives and his Greek Cypriot relatives and later his concerns about performing as a drag queen.  

I loved the portrayal of Michael’s relationship with his mother and Uncle B who has stepped in for Michael’s father (a character neatly defined by his refusal to engage with his son). I also loved his friendship with Daisy, which is why I personally wanted a better explanation for their break, which seems abrupt in terms of where it comes in the story and why Michael is so unforgiving about it.  To be fair, Atta picks it up later and I like where he leaves their friendship at the end of the book and if he ever decides to do a book about Daisy, I would read the heck out of it.

The black ink illustrations by Anshika Khullar work really well with the verse – they pick up themes in the verse and highlight them without ever overpowering the text.  I should also mention that the way the text has been formatted to highlight the verse works really well, e.g. the use of text bubbles to highlight dialogue.

The book doesn’t give you all the answers you might want for e.g. there’s never really the discussion you expect between Michael and his Uncle B and I wanted to know how Michael was feeling about a planned trip to Jamaica.  However, I was actually okay with that because this book is ultimately about Michael working out who he is and what his identity is and as such, my minor criticisms aside, I thought this was a great read and can understand completely why it’s on so many awards shortlists.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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