Set entirely on a fictional London bus route from Hoxton to Highbury, The 392 captures the diverse perspectives of 11 passengers who are each unknowingly bound together by a common threat.
From Natalie, the pregnant teen dreaming of writing her first novel, Ray the blind, xenophobic Millwall supporter nostalgic for the glory days, to Levi, once vilified for his actions during the 2011 London riots now a freshly qualified solicitor on his way to his first court case. These are the voices of people, characters, that we see every day, sit next to on buses and tube journeys and quite possibly – being in London – never interact with until, like the passengers of the 392, something extraordinary happens.
The 392 accurately voices the discontent of a city adversely affected and divided by gentrification, poverty, and xenophobia. It was easy to recognise and in some respects relate or sympathise with the characters as we travelled through their thoughts and concerns. It’s through their voices that the novel strongly comments on a wide range of societal and cultural issues such as disability, single parenthood, teen pregnancy, ageing, crime, drug abuse and mental health.
I really enjoyed the novel as it was very human-story led. The richness of the characters’ voices painted a vivid picture of a community still reeling from the aftermath of the London riots and trying to adjust to the many changes that gentrification had introduced, good and bad. It also depicts the frailty of community and trust, as the side effect of terroism across the city has rendered us all hypervigilant and hyper aware particularly in public spaces. Though this was a very key plot point of the novel, it’s also partly where the novel fell short for me, as the only Muslim character did not have his own voice, much less a name – which to me was a missing opportunity, as Muslim voices are often denied or spoken through others.
And unfortunately, in trying to address the marginalisations and stereotypes in our society, Hickson-Lovence inadvertently reinforces them. It happens again with the character of Sheila, the bus driver who is the hypersexualised fantasy of one of the white male passengers with a fetish for Black women, which made for really uncomfortable reading. While I understood the point, Hickson-Lovence was trying to make about Black women being fetishised by white men, I felt like it was undermined, by not allowing some sort of ‘clapback’ that would put the stereotype firmly on the back foot. In the same way, by not giving the Muslim character a name and his own stream of consciousness, rendered him visibly invisible and only present to serve the function as the sum of our fears.
That said, The 392 was a hugely enjoyable read. It was funny, witty, sad, and viscerally real, a fantastic debut from a very promising and relatable writer. I look forward to seeing what follows.
The 392 by Ashley Hickson-Lovence is available to buy from all good book retailers.