eschewing the naturalistic and concentrating on universal themes.
Mixing it by Rosemary Hayes introduces us to Fatimah, a ‘good girl’, a devout Muslim who is caught in an explosion that kills her best friend Aisha. The second central character Steve is caught up in the same explosion. Hayes tempts the reader with the idea of a Romeo and Juliet treatment that has appeared in several YA treatments of conflict, but does not make it the major focus. It remains no more than a teasing possibility.
After the bombing the press frames the story in a way that makes it look as if Fatimah had a white, non Muslim boyfriend and tended to him in preference to her Muslim friend, Aisha. This leads to both Fatimah and Steve finding themselves the victims of verbal abuse and worse. The novel, more naturalistic in its treatment of the material than Singer’s, is a convincing, honest and satisfying read. It is very carefully plotted, driving towards a conclusion that genuinely takes the reader by surprise.
Annabel Pitcher’s first novel My sister lives on the mantelpiece has been longlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize. It has a stunning opening: ‘My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London.’
Pitcher told me that the subject matter, a child killed in a bombing reminiscent of July 7th, caused the first agent to call the novel ‘commercially disastrous’. Fortunately, the second agent showed a better appreciation of the book’s value. Pitcher’s main character Jamie starts a new school where he has to sit next to Sunya, a Muslim girl. Because of what happened to his sister he feels very uncomfortable.
I asked Pitcher why she set the book in the Lake District. She told me: ‘I wanted to create the sense that Jamie is cut off from any source of support, both physically and emotionally. Second, I wanted to create a sense of irony: the father leaves London to get away from Muslims but ends up more personally affected by a Muslim family in an area that has one of the smallest Islamic populations in the UK. Finally, it was essential that Sunya and her family were different and individual. I didn’t want to create a stereotype. That’s why Sunya’s mother is a vet and the family owns a dog. Both are traditionally frowned upon in the Islamic faith.’
This is a story on an intimate human scale, affected by the war on terror but not trying to delineate it in any historical form. What attracts Pitcher is the detail of every day life and she communicates it beautifully.
The impact of wider forces
Anna Perera’s Guantanamo Boy is faster-paced and more directly concerned with the impact of wider forces on her protagonist Khalid’s life. Perera told me: ‘After 9/11 the world seemed out of control.’ She drew on her own mixed-race background to understand Khalid: ‘The fact he’s a Muslim is both relevant and irrelevant at the same time’, relevant in that he is drawn into the nightmare of Guantanamo in spite of his innocence, irrelevant in that he is an everyman character with whom we can easily empathise. In dealing with such controversial material Perera found that ‘the artistic pressure came first. I did masses of research but my main objective was to create believable characters and dramatic scenes’. She manages it with panache, exposing great injustice through the prism of one young
Two debut novels complete my selection. Trent Reedy’s Words in the Dust, published in the UK this autumn, tells the story of Zulaikha growing up in Afghanistan. She has a cleft lip. The village boys mock her cruelly and call her Donkeyface. Her mother is dead, executed by the Taliban for possessing books. Her beloved sister is married off with catastrophic consequences. This is a harrowing tale of adversity and aspiration.
Trent Reedy found himself in Afghanistan as a member of the Iowa National Guard and the novel emerged from his experiences guarding reconstruction efforts. This is a very accomplished piece of work, poetic and emotive, with a considerable empathy for the female characters who are realised with great delicacy.
Catherine Bruton’s We Can Be Heroes is an astonishing, inventive, almost playful treatment of a blizzard of issues: honour killing, terrorism, far right extremism, racism, forced marriage, a race riot, a child disappearance. It is a mark of the author’s skill that they never become a morass of issues. They never overwhelm the story. The protagonist Ben’s father was killed in the 9/11 attacks. He meets Priti, a Muslim girl with a Hindu name. Employing a faux naïf tone, Bruton tells a big story with astonishing gusto and control. It is structured around a series of questions posed by Ben at the end of each section, reflecting on what has happened. In a way Bruton uses some of the techniques you might expect from a Paula Danziger or a Louise Rennison to frame her responses to a frightening world. I felt there was occasional inconsistency in the narrative voice, but that is a very minor criticism. This is a book that deals with serious issues in an endearing, humorous way. It is a remarkable piece of work.
All the writers discussed have tried to give imaginative coherence to the swirling unrealities and deceptions of the war on terror.
It is for our readers to decide whether we have succeeded. n
An Act of Love by Alan Gibbons (Orion, 978 1 8425 5782 2, £8.99 pbk)
The Innocent’s Story by Nicky Singer (Oxford, 978 0 1927 2617 9, £5.99 pbk)
Mixing it by Rosemary Hayes (Frances Lincoln, 978 1 8450 7495 1, £5.99 pbk)
My sister lives on the mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (Indigo, 978 1 7806 2029 9, £6.99 pbk)
Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera (Puffin, 978 0 1413 2607 8, £6.99 pbk)
Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy (Frances Lincoln, 978 1 8478 0271 2, £6.99 pbk)
We Can Be Heroes by Catherine Bruton (Egmont, 978 1 4052 5652 0, £6.99 pbk)
Books for Keeps No.189 July 2011 5
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