Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Concentr8®, by William Sutcliffe

Set in a future London, Concentr8 is a prescription drug intended to help kids with ADD and ADHD. Once teachers recommend which troublesome, unfocused or overly-active kids should be put forward for the programme, 95% of those suggested are on the drug. Soon the ADHD epidemic becomes quite manageable with these behaviour altering medicines. It prevents downward spirals into crime, suppresses excessive energy, makes them more manageable and less prone to violent or aggressive behaviour. The attached disability living allowance directed to parents makes things easier too. Better for teachers, better for parents and better for society as a whole, right?

Overnight, funding for Concentr8 is slashed and the drug is withdrawn. Rioting, looting and disorder ensues, as a nation of violent criminals revert to their feral state, tearing the capital apart. This violence is not really the focus of the book, but the smokescreen which allows the plot to unfold. Amidst the chaos of the summer riots Troy, Femi, Lee, Karen and Blaze, kids who have been on Concentr8 for longer than they can remember, kidnap a nameless, faceless office worker from the mayor's office and abduct him, chaining him to a radiator in an abandoned warehouse. What starts off as a spur of the moment laugh, something they do because they can, turns into a media frenzy that there's no walking away from. A tense five days follow, as the teens struggle to realise what they have done- no demands, no motivation and no idea what's going to happen to them now.

The narrative jumps around as each of the teen characters takes their turn as narrator. We come to understand why they're angry (even if they don't see it themselves) and they gradually reveal their thoughts and anxieties. Each of the kidnappers had a unique voice and outlook- they worried about the same things in very different ways. The narrative style of the teens is very colloquial, which won't be to all readers' tastes, but here I thought it was used very effectively. It gets across that these kids are at the bottom of the social pile. No ambition, no hope, no role models, little education and no future. I found the alternating perspectives to be really insightful, and I really liked how the narrator would switch between the teen voices, then change to one of the adults; the floppy haired, power thirsty Mayor, a journalist investigating the policy surrounding the drug's introduction and withdrawal, occasionally the hostage and infrequently but hilariously the police hostage negotiator, who is simply an idiot. As the reader pieces together the fragments uncovered by the journalists, and through the snippets of books, journal articles, tweets and testimonies that begin every chapter, we start to see what the sinister motivation and rationale is for the widespread prescription of Concentr8. It really gives a heist narrative a political thriller edge. 

I liked that this book tackled a different mental health problem- depression and OCD are increasingly prevalent in YA fiction, so I found this topic to be of immense interest. I don't believe the novel was too hung up on presenting accurate portrayals of ADHD, but instead focused on the difficulty of diagnosing and treating such invisible, complicated and varying mental conditions. It asks is medication always the answer? Especially when you consider how difficult it is, naturally, to diagnose mental illness? This was at the heart of the story really, how easy it is to write off bad behaviour and social problems as mental disorders. Over-diagnosis and misdiagnosis misrepresents mental illness but to explain away deep-lying social problems as mental insufficiencies is an arrogance and an injustice that it's all too easy to imagine Westminster stooping to. The book also opens up the always fascinating debate about nature versus nurture. What is the underlying cause of mental health problems? Is it part of out genetic make-up? Are we born predisposed to metal illness? Is the clock ticking down the moment we're born? Or is it a result of environmental and social factors?  The politicians of Concentr8 don't really care, they just slap on the same label and medicate the social problems away.

I found this to be a compelling and thought provoking book that looks at the shadowy relationship between politicians & policy makers and the corporations or individuals that benefit financially from the effects of the policies they make and enforce. It asks interesting questions about the way that society is manipulated and managed, how we label people, particularly  children, and how between the media and the government, we really have no idea what's going on, what the real problems are or who to blame.

If you liked this book, look out for  these:

The Hit by Melvin Burgess- another smart, tense YA read. Explores social collapse, youth drug use and the search for the ultimate high at the ultimate price.

Nobody Saw No One, by Steve Tasane- if the colloquial dialogue added to your understanding of the characters, try this. An updated Oliver Twist, but set in the 21st century wake of Operation Yew Tree. The book looks at how the rich and powerful can satisfy their perversions and buy silence and anonymity.

If you're feeling brave and don't care who knows it, go for Brave New World, by Aldus Huxley the original drug-based utopia, where society is so afraid of its own feelings and emotions that everyone collectively blocks them out using Soma, a drug designed to induce utopia.

Thanks to @LizzSkelly for the copy :)

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