Coconut Unlimited is a novel that many will enjoy but only few to its fullest. This is invariably because of the subject matter and while various people will chuckle along with the comical elements and scowl at the unfairness of an awkward teenage life, it is only if you have lived a part of the story for yourself that the novel will truly entertain. Coconut Unlimited is the story of three boys living in Harrow in the 1990’s. Amit, Anand and Nishant are trying their hardest to live a fun and interesting teenage life but they don’t fit in. As a solution of sorts they form a hip hop group called Coconut Unlimited.
The name refers to a moment when Amit’s sister says how they are brown on the outside, but white on the inside. To their rich school friends they are a bunch of “try hard darkies” who want street cred, even if it is self made. The novel features vast amounts of sly comedy and moments of tension. Nikesh Shukla balances the humour incredibly well and allows the reader to laugh with the boys, rather than at them, as the ensemble cast may well do. It creates a great bond that is then put to the test as the book proceeds and we see Amit fall (mistakenly) into the world of drug dealing.
“Yo, bredren, we be the illest,’ went my proclamation. ‘We be the dopest,’ Anand would follow. ‘Our tunes are going to be good,’ Nishant would finish with.”
Shukla’s talent for writing of the 1990’s is surely more autobiographical than fictional as we see old street slang ooze through the dialogue and bolster the grimy hip hop references throughout. Mentions of Nas’ Illmatic album being given five mics in The Source may pass over some heads but to any youths of the 1990’s this would be familiar knowledge.
This is where that need for the niche comes into play. As a kid in the 90’s I bopped my head to many a Dr Dre beat as lyrics that would never apply to my life blasted from a C-90 cassette tape. The book gave me fond memories of those moments of frantic panic as your old tape deck chews up your favourite album or getting together with friends and simply wasting time around the shared brilliance that is music.
“Anand finished up his cola cube transaction. I stepped up and slammed three pound coins on the counter like an oppressed inner-city youth born with the skills of rhythm and rhyme.”
Much of this fond nostalgia will seep into a person’s brain and flick the switch that takes them back to a year gone by, but there are so many hip hop references that there may be one too many for some. Thankfully this is only a momentary pause rather than being completely off putting.
It’s not just a novel about hip hop and humour, though. There are many sinister moments of either drug taking or racism. When Amit is spoken to by one of his teachers I could feel my toes curling with frustration as his teacher spouts verbal abuse at him frilled with “wit” as an attempt to hide it. The writing reflects on teenage angst and shows how culture can be represented, or misrepresented, in Britain.
Shukla’s writing is never heavy and always tries to keep a sense of lightness, particularly when reflecting on the Gujarati heritage and living. An example of this would be the dialogue of Amit’s parents as each ‘W’ in a sentence is replaced with a ‘V’. Or how their parents constantly pressure them into becoming doctors or lawyers, it could be seen as stereotypical but all Shukla is doing is revealing what we have seen ourselves. This of course allows the rebellion of the youngsters into their “ghetto” world all the more.
“I was proud to be brown in my own way. Well, I was at school; at school I was brown about the funky stuff that came with being vegetarian, like being really arrogant about it, declaring proudly to a room full of beefeaters when Mad Cow disease initially broke that it was ‘Vishnu’s way of telling y’all to stop eating and start worshipping’.”
While I loved much of the book I only felt let down by the brevity of the book and also that it was a little too simple at times. There were brief moments where the scene doesn’t pack quite as much punch as you would like; the scene in the headmaster’s office comes to mind.
I still loved the book and each time I closed it my head was bobbing minutely to a beat in my mind. I enjoyed the interplay between the friends and the camaraderie seen. It may not be for everybody but Nikesh Shukla has nailed a novel that makes you smile, frown and above all tells a good story.