Terror Kid: novel by Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah knows how to communicate with his audience and they love him because his voice cuts through the formal or the pompous and invariably hits its target. As a writer for teenagers he has tried to stay relevant and to engage with issues that are both difficult and contemporary – his novel Refugee Boy is now frequently spoken of as a ‘classic’ of its kind and has been turned into a successful play. Dealing sympathetically with the case of a young asylum-seeker and exposing the often cruel regime of British ‘border control’ was both ground-breaking and daring subject matter for teen reading but was also a choice that perfectly illustrates why Zephaniah sees himself as a born trouble-maker, a disturber of comfortable complacency and over-turner of stereotypes. His new book, Terror Kid, fearlessly inhabits similar controversial territory. Rico Frederico is the son of Spanish Romany parents now living in the UK and, despite the fact that he does all he can to keep out of trouble, he’s used to being the focus of random police attention. But Rico is smart enough not to let his politically cynical dad or his fiery best friend Karima (herself of Somalian refugee extraction) influence him or persuade him into injudicious retaliation. Rico’s too smart for that; he’s too smart to find himself giving the police an excuse. Or he thought he was. Rico also hates injustice and needs to let people know. Being an ace computer nerd helps – he can hack sites using his computer in ways that aren’t strictly legal but that tell him truths he can’t find out about elsewhere. His desire to take the side of the oppressed and ill-done-by leads him to get noticed by a menacing and unpleasant character known only as ‘Speech’. Bit by bit Rico is reeled into  becoming an unwitting part of plot to bomb a police station – a plot that leads to death and destruction. What immediately becomes clear to Rico is that he has been set up by ‘Speech’ and is being hung out to dry, made to take the blame for the atrocity. Helped by his sister, Rico goes on the run but inevitably he eventually has to turn himself in – only to discover the police have decided that this terror plot was all the doing of Rico and his best friend Karima. With the help of a rookie human rights lawyer, Karima is released and Rico’s unwitting part in the plot is laid bare – but that’s the limit of the happy ending. Rico still has to face jail and to come to terms with the fact that he was used by sinister forces beyond his understanding or control – the cost of that will be his lost freedom and the knowledge that his desire for social justice has been perverted into a cruel act of terror. Zephaniah has produced another eminently readable tale of injustice and duplicity but, unlike Refugee Boy, too much here just doesn’t hold together to keep the reader on-side. The central plot device – Rico’s encounters with ‘Speech’ – stretches credibility to breaking point. Why would this savvy and principled young man fall so easily and gullibly under the influence of a character who is so clearly unpleasant and untrustworthy? The problem, I think, is with the character of Speech himself who Zephaniah fails to make real or believable at any point in the narrative. Even evil or wicked characters need to have some kind of backstory to explain their behaviour or more finely drawn characteristics that might explain their influence or charisma – Speech has none of these and consequently seems nothing more than a clumsy plot device. However much it feels like the author has had to strain to find a way to address an issue of contemporary relevance and however much it feels like he hasn’t quite pulled it off, I can only be glad there there are books like this out there and that there are authors who feel it’s important to tell these stories to a new generation of readers. Zephaniah deserves to be read and deserves to be given the latitude to miss the mark occasionally because his commitment to trouble-making can do nothing but good.

Terry Potter 2014

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