Hoping for a shift in the human heart


FICTION: HinterlandBy Caroline Brothers Bloomsbury, 256pp. £14.99

TO SAY THAT THIS is an intensely political novel is at once entirely accurate and totally inadequate. It is the story of two young brothers – Kabir, aged eight, and Aryan, aged 14 – who are refugees from violence, the Taliban and appalling personal and familial loss in Iran and Afghanistan, fleeing across Europe to the desperation that is Sangatte refugee camp, in France, with the ultimate (unattainable?) dream of England and the opportunity to go to school.

Based on wide-ranging research, inspired, to quote the author, “by my conversations with a roll-call of lone children from Afghanistan who I encountered at several crossroads in Europe”, and written by a politically engaged journalist, this book has the haunting ring of truth about it. It deals with the terrible consequences for refugees and displaced people, especially children, of war and conflict, but the consequences also of the smug indifference to human suffering of the developed world, in spite of its professed adherence to humane values and human rights.

The children whose story this is suffer bereavement, pain, neglect, hunger, thirst, fear, sexual abuse, illness, cold and exhaustion almost beyond enduring, yet they do endure. But though it has the shape and power of documentary and the documentary-maker’s passionate engagement with her subject matter, what most distinguishes this book is the poetic power of the language. The landscape, the weather, the natural world and physical sensations are described with a shocking painterly intensity.

Waking in a field: “The dawn is tangy with iodine and the smell of tomato leaves. A caterpillar pleats and stretches itself along the length of a branch like a tape measure with audacious stripes.”

Snowfall at a railway border crossing: “Fat snowflakes cloak the metal railings in fur. They gather in the angles of the razor wire, settle on the tops of the security cameras, and eddy like fainting butterflies on to the sleepers and the listening rails.”

Harvesting oranges at dawn in winter: “With blunt fingers he tears open an orange from a lower branch. The skin is thick and easy to peel; inside, capsules of sweetness rear up like feathers. Their teeth jar with the citric cold as they melt the icy segments in their mouths.”

There is poetry on every page, as well as pity, and the poetry is not always in the pity but in the joy of being alive on this earth.

Hinterlandis not without flaws as a novel. The narrative pace is slack in places, and only the last quarter has real dramatic tension. There are unresolved questions about communication: quite complicated exchanges take place between people who lack a common language, with no explanation of how the parties make themselves understood to each other. Shifts in scene are often abrupt and seem to serve the author’s purposes rather than the reader’s. The dramatic power of the end of the story is considerably weakened by an unnecessary epilogue of sorts in the first person. And the lack of chapter breaks seems an affectation that serves no real purpose while making it more difficult for readers to find their place when taking the book up again after a break.

There is no doubt that readers are invited to empathise with the plight of Aryan and Kabir in this novel, but the characterisation is rather shadowy. We get to know their stories intimately, but there is a kind of emotional distance from them as people (as opposed to subjects to whom things happen).

This is perhaps a sort of protection for both author and reader from the horrors of the boys’ experience, or it may be the result of an admirable refusal to sentimentalise them, but it is slightly eerie, and it weakens the impact of a story that should pack a great emotional punch.

The two main characters in the novel are children, but this is not a book for children or even young adults. (In normal discourse, a young adult is aged between 18 and 25; in bookshops, he or she is about 13.) Thoughtful older teenagers who are politically engaged may want to read it, however.

With Hinterland,Caroline Brothers more than achieves her stated ambition – “I wanted to open up a quiet space where I could say to readers: this is happening, we have to talk about it . . . Can one hope for awareness, some shift in the human heart?” Moreover, she does it with a richness of prose that is rare in novels whose primary objective is unreservedly political.

Siobhán Parkinson is Laureate na nÓg. Her most recent novels are Bruised(for teenagers) and Painted Ladies(for adults)