It is important to read YA fiction about painful and difficult lives as a way to understand and empathise. That’s all well and good but I seem to read an awful lot of novels with distressing subject matter and this looked like it might be another that could keep me awake at night. I am ashamed to say that I have never read anything by this award winning author before but in this case I was hooked from page one, largely because of the quality of the writing.
Part of the compelling nature of this book is down to its structure which has very short chapters, perhaps to reflect the short bursts of energy that are needed to keep the two main characters travelling on their long and risky journey. There is also a slow and carefully crafted reveal as to the secrets that are locked away from the reader in what is described as ‘Castle.’ This word appears regularly and acts as a safe word to shut down any meanderings into the past until the author is ready to tell us more:
‘You just say: CASTLE! And then the impossible thing that was in your mind flies out and plops straight in the tower like a stone plopping into a still pond. And the concentric rings of water immediately become walls of stone and the screaming stops.
At least for a while’.
Unaccompanied fourteen year old, Mhairi is making a journey from the Sudan, where she has lived with her parents for seven years, towards her original home on the Isle of Arran where she hopes to be eventually reunited with her grandmother. She is on the move with thousands of other migrants who are fleeing north because of devastating environmental damage caused by the melting of the Arctic ice cap. Due to diminishing resources, the countries in the northern hemisphere have become increasingly hostile to accepting refugees, so crossing any border is fraught with danger and the possibility of being imprisoned in harsh detention centres. The global crisis has also caused many new draconian rules and regulations to be enforced, including euthanasia by injection at the age of seventy four.
Mhairi is a clever and resourceful young woman who has learnt to be wary of strangers and knows that she has to stay focussed on keeping safe, if she is going to survive. She knows that time is running out if she is going to reach her destination because, once she is fifteen, she will be treated as an adult refugee which will make it much more difficult to be approved. She has seen plenty of horrors along the way so when she meets a frail old man and a little boy who looks about six years old, her first reaction is to challenge them with an unloaded revolver. This is only the second page of the story but we learn that she has picked the gun up from a ‘riot at Heathrow DC, five hundred kilometres and twenty one days ago’. The man collapses and dies but Mhairi feels no obligation to look after or even comfort the little boy because she has grown an unsentimental shell to protect herself against needing other people. Despite her coldness she is haunted by her mother and father’s voices that continually remind her of the need to be kind to others. After trying to lose the boy several times, she realises that she can just about tolerate his company and so they continue the journey together.
I loved the way that Mhairi gradually develops a grudging affection for the boy, although she resists getting too attached. His main coping strategy seems to be to suck on a stone which clearly gives him some emotional comfort, but other than this, she knows that he is unlikely to be able to care for himself for long. She teaches him her own survival skills which include slowly savouring minuscule amounts of food like the wild garlic bulbs that they discover and how to build a rudimentary shelter to escape from a fierce storm. There are so many heart- breaking moments in the story, but one that sticks with me is when she helps him to strip off his rain soaked clothes and sees that he is wearing a vest:
‘The vest is sodden and dirty but I can’t stop this sudden thought: someone must have loved him to have given him this vest.’
He is clearly of African origin but only communicates with gestures. She decides to give him the name ‘Mo’ in memory of another boy that she was travelling with many months before, who did not survive. Mo seems to be a surprisingly resilient child although he has his moments of despair when he sobs uncontrolledly. But he also likes to laugh and he feels a sense of connection with Mhairi because the two of them both have a chipped front tooth. She soon realises that he has his own ‘castle’ full of terrible secrets that she can only begin to guess at. The author explains in the acknowledgements that Mo’s character was partly inspired by a small boy that she met at the edge of the desert in Morocco. I think that his muteness makes him a powerful symbol because he is a well- drawn individual character, but he can also represent all the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who do not have a voice.
Apart from the obvious resonances with current real world concerns about migration and climate change, this is an exciting adventure story. Mhairi has to dodge all kinds of hair-raising dangers and to take risky choices. She is sustained by happy memories of her parents and her earlier childhood as well as a very fertile imagination that keeps her sane. In this way she can stay in control of her situation and uses her impressive creative abilities to find solutions to dilemmas that would stump most adults. These include proving herself as a fighter with other inmates and then escaping with Mo from a detention centre, risking death by hiding under a lorry, and finding shelter in the strangest of places.
Once they are on the last leg of the journey, getting to the Isle of Arran seems impossible, especially when Mhairi realises that this is not an easy place to find safety because it has now developed complex border controls. Another problem is that her own ‘ thunderous’ grandmother is part of the strict and oppressive new regime.
There are so many unexpected twists and turns in this wonderful story with an ending that really surprised me. It deals with huge themes about hatred, oppression, death and disappointment but these are beautifully balanced with glimpses of tenderness and hope with both Mhairi and Mo emerging as very brave and generous characters. I went through a series of emotions as I read this extraordinary novel and I strongly recommend that it will also enthral you from beginning to end.
( This review first appeared on The Letterpress Project website )