Revolution on the Rock walks the reader through a traditional story of a quest using unconventional characters.
The title sounds like Karren Ablaze!: legendary in significant circles, for being a feminist music critic and speaker, the originator and contributing editor to the infamous pre-digital 90s Leed’s fanzine Ablaze! She is still being asked about her experience as a Riot Grrrl and continues writing music journalism. This is her debut novel.
It’s set in 2016 in Gilbraltar, for the main, a backdrop built on Colonial exploitation and populated by people that “Love all that stuff!” (Best of British). Arguably, it’s reflective of the majority demographic back in Blighty, who were about to vote LEAVE in the EU Referendum in June (2016). The point is not lost on the heroine, Bunty, who represents an alternative demographic and wants to REMAIN. She’s a working-class girl from Leeds; a feminist punk and sound engineer in the artistic and altruistic underground music scene. Her parents go to the same gigs (but promise to ignore her if she’s working).
Having jumped a cruise ship in desperado fashion, although contracted to work as a sound engineer, escaping the weird worldview of her work colleagues, and the plastic, sickly sweet smell of the ballroom where she was expected to spend most of her waking hours, Bunty lands on a more treacherous path, with no passport.
Ablaze!’s imagery includes the famous Rock of Gilbraltar, always leering over the residents on both sides of its borders. She captures the mood and mayhem of its cobbled streets, filled with the sound of Llanito, (the Gibraltarian’s language – a mix of Spanish and English, some Italian and their own words) and cafe smells that remind her of home. The wandering and heavy haze of the building heat melding with the pollution from a local oil refinery, amidst the noise of everyday, oblivious, keep her own anxious thoughts and fears company.
But, in traditional fashion, Bunty finds allies to help her along her journey, which grows into a fantastic quest and brings in issues such as climate change, corporate deception and corruption, and a disinterested main government. Some characters make a bigger impression than others.
When she meets hero-of-sorts Asif, she empathises with him over experiences of racism back in his home of Sheffield. They share a sense of doom about the oncoming vote back in the UK. They bond through joking about the absurdity of icons of Imperialism, such as the bright red ER post boxes that litter the golden landscape where wild monkeys roam the lower folds of the Rock, and the police are armed. English signs and currency, pubs and fish and chip shops are in abundance.
Bunty is the only protagonist I know in literature, at the time of writing, who breaks down and sobs uncontrollably about the LEAVE result of the EU Referendum.
Ablaze! has put a lot of critical thinking behind the development of Bunty’s character. From the off, it’s clear that she has no money, which is why she took the awful engineering job on the cruise ship, and has to live on a day-by-day basis with other people defining her character both by her blackness, and her sexuality, as well as the pressures of working in a male-dominated field in the music industry. But Bunty is all about solutions.
As the build-up intensified Karren Ablaze! had me gripped, reading faster and for longer periods, with the urgency of the rhythms of a punk song. I start to accidentally call the cat Bunty because I wanted to go back to the solitude of Revolution on the Rock and Bunty’s world, even if she and her name annoy me at times.
There are 66 chapters that chart this quest, which includes Bunty illegally hopping borders, falling in love, and starting a soft revolution, with dynamic impact. Each chapter title is like a song on an album or really is a phrase in a well-worn popular song. To name a few examples: It’s an Imperial Outrage; Dance This Mess Around; Bootless in Fire; Waiting for the Man; Do I stay or Do I…?
Cool reference points of punk bands and poets, song titles and snippets of lyrics from Leed’s and punk’s great legacy roll onto the pages. I hurdle some and recall a few, making a note to watch out for the LOUD WOMEN interview with Karren Ablaze! to fill in some of my gaps in subject knowledge. It’s a reminder that things matter to people like Bunty and her friends outside of their own realm of interest and that these people exist in our music communities. A music community is much more than a scene or trend; the cultural capital that keeps afloat an entire industry. But the real star is the great yarn spun in reassuring order with a traditional heroine with a twist. There are phrases and descriptions that are easy on the eye (metaphors like Lapiz Lazuli sky). It’s a debut novel to be proud of – any less successful chunks here and there only reflect naturally shaky steps in a new field and genre, and a responsibility to represent Bunty at her worst and best.
Her dogged realism and leftfield vision are refreshing. I would be happy for more protagonists like Bunty in mainstream fiction. Ablaze! makes no attempt to romanticise Bunty’s personality. She is not depicted as eccentric and entertaining, but rather as a realistic model with good reasoning (sometimes too much explanation since the author is targeting a readership that is already well informed).
I stopped reading for several days once I hit Way Home. Then I broke and finished it in one sitting. Under normal circumstances, I would be saving the last 65 pages as a treat for a winter’s day when everything has gone wrong. I’m not telling you what happens.
Revolution on the Rock, Karren Ablaze!, (2022), Mittens Publishing: UK