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Written by Peter Whittaker for New International on Thursday, April 11, 2019

In his debut novel, Jamaican author Dwight Thompson presents us with a coming-of-age story that adheres to the maxim ‘write what you know’. Set in Montego Bay in the 1980s, Death Register is the story of Chauncey Knuckle – a schoolboy and aspiring writer whose talent has won him a place at an elite boys’ college. Abandoned by his father after his mother’s death, Chauncey is raised by his grandparents in a loving but fiercely strict family. Violence, both inside and outside the home, is endemic and Chauncey’s path to university and escape from the stifling norms of Montego Bay is strewn with obstacles. His school is a hidebound and patriarchal place and, in the semi-lawless streets, there is the constant lure of drugs, sex and criminal gangs.

Central to the book is the environment of homophobia that imbues everything in Chauncey’s world. He is deeply troubled by his failure to defend his gay best friend Tristan when he is abused by a church elder, Deacon Mac. Tristan’s drift into drug use and an early death is shatteringly traumatic to Chauncey. He is, however, far from an innocent abroad himself and battles with his own inability to form lasting relationships and a disturbing disposition towards sexual violence. Conveyed primarily through richly imagined dialogue and extracts from Chauncey’s writing, one young man’s attempt to come to terms with his own deficiencies is the beating heart of the book. Dwight Thompson is to be commended for such an unflinchingly honest portrait of a character striving not only to be a better writer but – crucially – a better person.

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