“Jaq: A Top Boy Story” is a novel of moral ambiguities – Toni Kan

Top Boy, the gritty Netflix crime thriller created by Ronan Bennett provided a pivotal moment in TV much like The Wire did in the early noughties.

Featuring much loved and hated characters like Dushane and Sully. Jamie and Jaq, Lauryn and Shelly as well as Mandy and Becks, the action played out within the fictional Summerhouse estate and beyond.

Speak to a Top Boy fan following the end of the series and the conversation will inevitably veer towards two topics: Who killed Sully and will there be a spin-off?

While the jury is still out on who killed Sully, the odds are aligning in favour of a spin-off especially in the light of  Jasmine Jobson’s Best Supporting Actress BAFTA in May 2024.

And then Ronan Bennet has gone and written a novel with Jaq as its main character.

Jaq: A Top Boy Story is a fully realised portrait of Jaq Lawrence as a drug dealer, loving sister, loyal friend and reluctant lover. In this novel we learn of her origins, her absentee father, her fraught relationship with her mother and reversal of roles with big sister Lauryn who becomes her charge in many ways.

But aside from focusing on Jaq, the novel offers a psychological exploration of the characters’ motives and conflicted emotions regarding what they do to earn their living.

Fans of Top Boy, the TV series can attest to the fact that it is chockful of characters doing battle with moral dilemmas and morally ambiguous moments.

Dushane balancing his drug dealing with his feelings for Shelley and her daughter.

Sully the mean one playing catch-up with the daughter he hasn’t been there for.

Jamie juggling the role of big brother slash parent by night and street soldier by day.

Then there is Jaq, the LGBTQ character introduced in season 3 and who effectively became the replacement for the hapless Dris. In Jaq’s character, Ronan Bennett’s ability to draw fully realised and deeply conflicted characters is on full display.

Jaq is a female holding her own in a male dominated arena. Through smarts and hard work she gains Sully’s trust and Dushane’s grudging respect.

The youngers on the street respect and fear her but when her sister dies from a drug overdose, a moral switch is flicked on in Jaq’s brain and what she does next has grave repercussions for many characters.

Jaq’s moral dilemma sees her stealing a cache of drugs belonging to Sully and Dushane and in doing so precipatea a sequence of events that lead to the end of the Dushane and Sully friendship and empire.

By her action, Jaq emblematises the moral dilemma at the core of every criminal; the insistent moral compass tilting, always, to their true north.

The question that roils her mind is a simple one; how do you continue to sell the drugs that killed your sister and led to the death of many others?

Drugs in her possession, the gravity of her action steals her sleep and lying awake in bed she begins a collation of people she knew who had died on account of their drug dealing.

“I start thinking about all the people I know who died cos of this shit. I am lying in the dark and I say their names out loud…”

The book also offers us a thesis on how a Top Boy emerges. Top Boys are not made they are born.

“When you think about it, there’s always been a Top Boy…back in slavery times that fella on the ship going across from Africa to America, all chained up in the darkness with all the other slaves, the one who kept his head down and waited and watched till he figured out how it all worked and how he could get outta this.”

That is how a Dushane or Sully or Jamie or Jaq emerges. They do not and cannot accept the status quo.

Jaq, the novel is a fast paced read that references the TV series and ends in much the same way while also managing to introduce fresh plot twists and characters.

In the novel, we meet Sharon the Fed and Jimmy the Indian, two characters who may loom large if and when a spin-off is made.


Jaq: A Top Boy Story, Ronan Bennett, Canongate Books Ltd , 2023.

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