The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (rated 4/5)

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An Olive Grove in Ends
An Olive Grove in Ends
by Moses McKenzie

Hardcover (31 May 2022), 336 pages.
Publisher: Little Brown & Company
ISBN-13: 9780316420143
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An electrifying debut about a young man faced with a fraught decision: escape a dangerous past alone, or brave his old life and keep the woman he loves.

Sayon Hughes longs to escape the volatile Bris­tol neighborhood known as Ends, the tight-knit but sometimes lawless world in which he was raised, and forge a better life with Shona, the girl he's loved since grade school. With few paths out, he is drawn into dealing drugs along­side his cousin, the unpredictable but fiercely loyal Cuba. Sayon is on the cusp of making a clean break when an altercation with a rival dealer turns deadly and an expected witness threatens blackmail, upending his plans.

Sayon's loyalties are torn. If Shona learns the secret of his crime, he will lose her forever. But if he doesn't escape Ends now, he may never get another chance. Is it possible to break free of the bookies' tickets, burnt spoons, and crook­ed solutions, and still keep the love of his life?

Rippling with authenticity and power, Mo­ses McKenzie's dazzling debut brings to life a vi­brant and teeming world we have read too little about. In its sheer lyrical power, An Olive Grove in Ends recalls the work of James Baldwin and marks the arrival of an exciting and formidable new voice.

Coming Soon.

Excerpted from An Olive Grove in Ends by Moses McKenzie. Copyright © 2022 by Moses McKenzie. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. What does the "house-atop-the-hill" represent to Sayon and his mother?
  2. In Chapter 2, Sayon says "my mortality was as real to me as the soil I shovelled on to the aunts, uncles and cousins we buried…the funerals outnumbered even the weddings." How does his family history and their reputation in Ends impact his life as he comes of age?
  3. Each chapter begins with an epigraph that is a verse from the Bible or the Quran, or a Jamaican proverb. Why do you think the author decided to do this, and how does it affect the reading experience for you?
  4. Moses McKenzie is of Jamaican descent, but grew up in Bristol, UK. How do you think his relationship to heritage and culture influenced this novel?
  5. Sayon and Shona both grow up as children of pastors, but their relationship with religion is strikingly different. Why do you think this is?
  6. In Chapter 14, Sayon is faced with a decision: leave his family and join the church, or risk losing the love of his life and his freedom. Would you have made the same choice that he does?
  7. How does religion (or lack thereof) influence Sayon's decisions throughout the novel?
  8. After Sayon moves in with Shona and her family, they drift further apart. Why do you think this is? How does Pastor Lyle contribute to their estrangement?
  9. Sayon is only a year older than Cuba, but we see him acting as a protector to Cuba throughout the novel. Why do you think Sayon feels such a responsibility to keep Cuba safe?
  10. In Chapter 30, we learn that Hakim and Elia's bakery is in jeopardy after they receive an eviction notice from their landlady due to the "area changing and keeping up with the times." Later, the "house-atop-the-hill" that Sayon has idolized since childhood is sold with plans to turn the home into apartments. How does gentrification impact the characters' decisions and their community?
  11. Do you think Sayon should've told Shona what he did from the beginning? If he had been honest and told her before her father could, would anything have changed?
  12. In Chapter 38, we see Sayon convert to the Islamic religion. What does he find in Islam that he couldn't find in Christianity?
  13. Why do you think Cuba disappears from Ends?
  14. In Chapter 35, Sayon states "there is no such thing as a happy ending." Do you think he ultimately achieves his happy ending?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Little Brown & Company. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A gritty coming-of-age story set in current-day Bristol, England.

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Moses McKenzie's debut novel, An Olive Grove in Ends, revolves around Sayon, a young man of Jamaican heritage who lives with his large extended family in a poverty-stricken area of Bristol, England. For as long as he can remember, he's been obsessed with a nearby mansion — the "house-atop-the-hill" — and he fantasizes about the day he'll buy it and move in with the love of his life, Shona. To make the dream a reality he needs money, and he goes about acquiring cash through the only avenue he feels is open to him: selling heroin. His cousins are more than happy to welcome him into the trade, and he starts dealing drugs. When Shona's father witnesses him committing a crime, Sayon is forced to choose between what he sees as his only path forward and the girl he knows he is meant to be with.

McKenzie has created a remarkably sympathetic protagonist in Sayon. As he narrates his story, we quickly realize he's exceptional, born for better things than his circumstances might allow — something his relatives readily acknowledge. While they're content with their lawless lifestyle, by and large, he's seen as the only one in his family who might make it out of a life that "either ends in prison or six feet in the ground." In spite of his many wrongdoings, we root for him to break out of the "family business," win the girl and live a joyous, ideally crime-free life. It speaks volumes about the author's skill that he can make such a deeply flawed character so completely likeable.

There are a number of factors that influence Sayon's choices, all of which the author interweaves seamlessly, creating a complex picture of the challenges a young man born in his socioeconomic strata might face. The idea of a tight-knit extended family is key to the novel. With just a few exceptions, everyone that surrounds Sayon is a relative; they support and shield each other, even when they disagree or disapprove of something. Race and class play significant roles, as Sayon's mostly Black neighborhood becomes subject to gradual gentrification. The financial issues, limited opportunities and easy availability of drugs are major themes, as is the discussion of the role religion can play in one's life — for good or for ill.

Some readers may struggle with the messages this novel sends. There are few repercussions for the lawless behavior exhibited throughout the book. The author poses controversial questions about selling drugs, asking if it's really any worse than alcohol sales, or "chicken shops [that meet] the demands of the obese." Elsewhere Sayon states, "Some of the hardest-working people I knew sold drugs." Life is cheap, with casual murders occurring regularly and mostly without remorse. Christianity takes a beating, too; while in church considering the concept of "God's will," Sayon refers to Jesus as a "puppeteer…deftly moving our strings," and the Christian leaders in his life are shown to be callous hypocrites. Indeed, the author condemns these individuals far more than he does the murderers and drug dealers he depicts. Although I feel a bit uneasy with the author's point of view on these subjects, I love his honesty about them. It adds to the book's authenticity, and in the end, this is more of a plus than a minus.

The narrative sections are beautifully written ("I spent the second half of Year 7 in a wonderful haze. A sepia montage with little dialogue and a soundtrack provided by Earth, Wind and Fire."). However, the dialogue may be difficult to decipher for readers not familiar with Jamaican, Somalian and British slang (e.g., "Who im deh wid?" "Mi av ahh bone fi pick wid im, enuh"). Sometimes the context clarifies what the characters are discussing, but more often than not there's no indication, and sometimes following these conversations is integral to understanding the plot. I found that somewhere around the midpoint of the book I'd adjusted, but it was a fairly large hurdle to overcome at first. Struggling with these passages interrupted the book's flow and slowed the overall reading experience.

Although the above-mentioned concerns may be a barrier for some, I did really enjoy An Olive Grove in Ends. I found it to be wholly original, and Sayon a unique and fascinating narrator. The fact that it's McKenzie's first novel makes it all the more exceptional. If one of the reasons a person reads is to explore different cultures and see society from a different point of view, then this book definitely hits the mark. I recommend it for adult audiences looking for an unusual but well-crafted novel, as well as book groups who are willing to undertake the challenges the novel presents.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

The Guardian (UK)
Set among a richly drawn cast in a Jamaican-Somali community in Bristol, An Olive Grove in Ends follows the turbulent, often painful childhood and teens of Sayon, a drug dealer trying to keep his crimes secret from the pastor's daughter he's in love with. His engrossing first-person narrative, lyrical and slangy by turns, is the vehicle for a tough yet tender story of faith and friendship.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The most exciting U.K. debut in years…Drug violence, religious strife, and a star-crossed romance play out in this Shakespearean tale set in a Bristol neighborhood of Caribbean and Somali immigrants called Ends…A gritty coming-of-age tale for the ages.

Booklist
Sayon's world is so rich to inhabit. His family and conflicts are alive and dynamic on every page, a testament to McKenzie's electrifying sense of voice.

Publishers Weekly
McKenzie's beautiful debut, set in a predominantly British Jamaican neighborhood of Bristol, England, exhibits both a tenderness for the residents and an unflinching examination of their struggles...It's a gorgeous debut that nurtures an unlikely sort of hope that's predicated on countless losses.

Author Blurb Donal Ryan, two-time Booker Prize nominee and author of The Spinning Heart
An Olive Grove in Ends is magnificent. Moses McKenzie's talent is off the scale. It's a long time since a novel gripped me so tightly...This is a phenomenally good novel, tense and thrilling and complex, with breath-stealing moments on every page.

Author Blurb Patrick McCabe, two-time Booker Prize finalist and author of The Butcher Boy
What struck me most forcibly about An Olive Grove in Ends is the poetic strength and majesty of its prose—as the author himself might have it, 'like clarified honey.' From an author of such tender years, this consummately crafted work can only be a harbinger of a stellar and truly significant career. I urge you to read it.

Write your own review

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Gajanan
Good
This book is very good.

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Bristol, England

Overhead shot of Bristol Observatory and Clifton Suspension BridgeMoses McKenzie's debut novel, An Olive Grove in Ends, is set in Bristol, UK, a port city in southwest England, about 120 miles due west of London.

The Romans built a settlement in what is now Bristol early in the 2nd century CE. The oldest castle in the area — Bristol Castle, at the confluence of the Avon and Frome Rivers — was first mentioned in print in 1088 CE, and the city was incorporated in 1155. Its location made it ideal for trading and manufacturing, and during the 14th century, Bristol imported raw wool from Ireland, wove it into cloth, and then exported it to Spain and Portugal in exchange for sherry and port. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the city was used as a clearinghouse for sugar, tobacco and cacao from the Americas, Jamaica and West Africa, exporting textiles, pottery and glass in return. It was a key hub for the slave trade, with somewhere around half a million Africans transported to the United States on ships originating in Bristol in the 18th century alone.

Bristol's importance as a port and shipyard increased over time, and its nascent air industry added to its prominence by World War II. Because of the city's strategic importance, it was subjected to heavy bombing by Nazi aircraft from 1940 through 1944. It became the fifth-most heavily targeted city in England, and overall, nearly 90,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the air raids.

Today, Bristol is home to some 700,000 people, making it the sixth-most populous city in England and one of the nation's eight "Core Cities." It has continued to play an important role in the import and export of goods into the UK, and it has a thriving aerospace/aviation industry. It's also known as an educational center, with two world-class universities — the University of Bristol and the University of West England — located there.

The population of Bristol is younger on average than the rest of the UK. In addition, it's relatively ethnically diverse, with 22% of residents being non-white and over 90 languages spoken in the city according to the 2011 census.

Some other interesting trivia about Bristol:

  • Bristol was named by the Sunday Times (UK) as the "Best City in Britain in Which to Live" in 2014 and 2017.
  • Several well-known public figures were born in Bristol, including actors Cary Grant, Maisie Williams, and David Prowse (Darth Vader), Harry Potter author JK Rowling, artist Banksy, and comedian John Cleese.
  • There are 35 places named Bristol across the world (29 in the US alone), all named after the UK original.
  • Bristol has its own community currency called the Bristol Pound, launched in 2012.
  • Waterside Plaza in New York City was built using the rubble from bombed-out Bristol, which was used as ballast on the liberty ships returning to the US after offloading their cargo in Bristol.
  • Lead shot was invented in Bristol.
  • It's estimated that a third of the world's nature documentaries are produced in the city.
  • Bristol was home to Fry's Chocolate before it was purchased by Cadbury in 2010; Fry's was the first company in the world to manufacture chocolate bars and chocolate Easter eggs.

Bristol Observatory and Clifton Suspension Bridge, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

By Kim Kovacs

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