Illustration by Harry Tennant

Unmanaged decline: ‘England Is Mine’ and ‘I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning’, reviewed

Two recent novels survey England’s mental landscape. What is happening to the country’s young men?
June 5, 2024

Tower blocks. Post offices. Pubs. Football pitches. Schools. Online chat forums. The landscape of modern England is as much mental as it is physical. How do these places interact with one another and with the people who occupy them? What does the whole network of institutions, history, money, trends and expectations mean for any given individual?

In his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, the late critic and author Mark Fisher wrote with fierce clarity about his own depression and the mental health struggles of his students. His argument, broadly put, was that one person’s mental health crisis rarely emerges in a vacuum—at its root are systemic causes, too. Though it’s hard to disentangle environment from genetics, it’s clear that upbringing and social status play their part. What’s more, we are all so enmeshed in our communities that one person’s breakdown can reverberate in profound yet unknowable ways.

What effects, what reverberations, are being felt in England today? Two new and impressive novels grapple with that question. One is England Is Mine, by debut author Nicolas Padamsee; the other, Keiran Goddard’s I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning. Neither offers easy answers as they explore the terrain between mental illness, crime, identity and violence.

Padamsee’s novel takes as its subject the lives of two east London teenagers, David and Hassan. They are both from immigrant families, both obsessed with football, gaming and, like so many of their age and backgrounds, finding ways to fit in. David’s wrestling with his identity is more pronounced. His mother is Iranian, and often recounts the severity of life under the Islamic Republic; his father, a former officer in the British Army, is now confined to watching old TV shows and drinking, sometimes breaking off to sneer about his ex-wife. 

Since the divorce, David has been shuttled between their homes. At school, he is bullied after some of the other boys find his makeup kit; though he was only trying to improve the appearance of his oily skin, he is hit with a barrage of homophobic slurs. David reacts to this humiliation by focusing his attention on a charismatic musician, Karl Williams, who resembles a fusion of Pete Doherty, Russell Brand and Morrissey. (The novel’s title alludes to a 2017 film of the same name that traced the Manchester singer’s life before he formed the Smiths.) In a sense, alongside Reddit forums, Twitter and Call of Duty, it is this vegan musician who really radicalises David, and this dark comedy underlines the escalating disaster of his teenage personality crisis.

And so he changes his appearance to match his hero, donning fedora hats, eyeliner and other symbols of the indie-sleaze era, in defiance of his bullies. But when Karl is cancelled over comments he makes against Islam and immigration, David faces a painful decision. He chooses the path of repression. “David wonders what Karl meant, then puts it out of his mind. ‘Black Glass’ is a favourite, an early solo one. ‘You’ll pay the price,’ he sings.”

Alongside Reddit forums, Twitter and Call of Duty, it is a vegan musician who really radicalises David

David’s loyalty isolates him further. The provocative opinions of his hero, and then the racist ideas he encounters by going down online rabbit holes, seem to splinter his personality. He doesn’t want the same identity as those who bully him, but he does want the (imagined) acceptance of Karl. And so he suppresses his heritage and internalises the racism; he becomes his father’s son rather than his mother’s; he joins in with the bigots on social media. For a time, in a superficial way, it pays off. “A notification flashes up on his phone. The first like for his tweet. Rory and Eleanor and the other wokies who unfollowed him could do one.”

Confusion about identity is at the heart of David’s plight: he rebrands himself as Aryan, but is considered an Islamist due to his skin colour. He becomes an embodiment of a disastrous, post-truth confusion: he thinks he can recreate himself and escape the violence and isolation he has endured, but, regardless of the lengths he goes to, he fails to convince anyone else.

Similar things could be said of the novel’s other main character, Hassan. While he is part of the group that bullies David, Hassan also wants to change—by going to university—but is thwarted by how he is seen by others. There is a chilling sense of futility for both boys: they will always be reduced to their physical appearances and endure the consequences of being randomly hated by someone else.

Keiran Goddard’s second novel, I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning, considers the lives of a group of childhood friends, this time from a city that resembles Birmingham. Rian has moved to London and become rich almost by chance (playing the stock market online), but the others are all where they grew up, and Rian still visits them there, where they reconvene in a flat-roofed pub out of nostalgia and habit. Rian used to stay over with Patrick, a perpetually exhausted delivery driver, and his girlfriend Shiv, who stays home to raise their daughters—but recently he has chosen to stay in a hotel instead, which makes him feel slightly awkward. Joining them in the pub is Conor, who is developing a new housing project, and Oli, who treats his job on a local building site as a side hustle to his drug dealing.

Each person in this friendship group works hard in various ways, the assumption being that they must always work hard to somehow transcend their beginnings. Yet it is precisely this mindset that is so damaging. It’s why Patrick’s health becomes strained; Oli struggles to throw off his latent heroin addiction; and Conor drinks as hard as he labours, spinning out of control. “When we were kids, showing off in front of one another,” Patrick reflects, “we used to say we were drinkers, not talkers. But we didn’t mean it. Deep down we were hungry to talk but just embarrassed to do it. How many silent ways are there to tell your friends that you love them or that you’re scared to lose them or that you’re worried you might waste your life?... But now, that has changed. I think we actually are drinkers and not talkers. Eventually the mask becomes the face.”

They cannot be themselves without first being shamed or punished for it

In both of these novels, the sense of claustrophobia builds. These people cannot be themselves because the world around them will not allow for it without first shaming or punishing them. As Shiv says, “Your life was probably fine, but it wasn’t what it could have been. You were never quite yourself, but you never quite managed to escape yourself either.”

Eventually, this build-up spills over in cataclysmic ways. Violent actions are shown to be desperate attempts to take control and channel endemic frustration into… well, something. But, even in extremis, the characters cannot and do not communicate either who they are or who they want to be. In England Is Mine, David’s identity has been misunderstood and dismissed for such a long time that he takes solace in an invented, fantastical avatar of himself—blurring into a digital figure and dehumanising himself further. In I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning, the ambition to escape the constraints of the past inspires both a risky development project and various forms of addiction. All are compulsive, apt to fall in on themselves. “You can sense that the race is over. But there is no flag and no thunder. Or not that I can see from here.”

These are not merely trauma plots, then, but explorations of how the political is deeply personal, how society—English society—inflects the expectations, desires and actions of the people within it. Both books also consider political violence, and what even counts as such. An act of terrorism may seem obviously political; an act of domestic abuse or suicide, less so. But each share a common origin in wider, structural inequalities. The worth that we give ourselves and to each other determines how violence escalates; only common humanity and mutual respect can prevent it.

Goddard and Padamsee elegantly pinpoint how people are dehumanised in modern England—first by other people and then by themselves. Their characters lose their words, they are damned unfairly, they are so overworked they can barely think straight; they lose real connection and imagine the simulations offered to them are genuine. And from this breakdown in care emerges violence—the first expression of pain that can only perpetuate more of it.