Jon Walter: Close to the Wind
David Fickling Books 2015 (2014)
Dominating this book — on its cover and in the text — is an ocean liner. The first part narrates the hopes and fears attending her boarding, the second part narrates the trip and the third the aftermath. As a metaphor for refugees in transit it has taken on added resonance these days, what with the crises over migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa, the Channel Tunnel from France and through Turkey into Europe from Syria (and we mustn’t ignore other international situations, such as the boat people struggling to get to Australia). In truth of course the situation with regard to refugees is that — as with the poor in the Gospel accounts — they are always with us: to humankind’s perpetual shame there will always be migrants (whether branded as economic or illegal) as also asylum seekers fleeing persecution or war in hopes of a safe haven.
The refugees in this story are fleeing a volatile situation in an unnamed country, perhaps in Eastern Europe or the Balkans (maybe somewhere like Albania), at an unspecified period but in relatively recent times (perhaps the 1990s). The narration largely focuses on Malik Kusak (with his mix of Arab and Polish names) and, for a while, his grandfather (whom he calls Papa, perhaps because that’s what Malik’s mother called him). They have fled from home to a sea port; here they are hoping to meet up with Malik’s mother and travel to safety on board the last humanitarian ship to leave the country, fittingly called The Samaritan. But as is the way of things — especially during conflicts — not all goes according to plan, and Malik finds he is sailing dangerously close to the wind even before he sets foot on deck.
This is such an affecting debut novel from the author. There is a particularly harrowing episode involving a tooth while Malik and his grandfather are holed up in an abandoned terraced house, when two of Papa’s acquaintances, fellow refugees, share the shelter for the night. Then there are the machinations at the port, where corrupt local officers raise the black market price of travel or accept bribes. On board The Samaritan Malik falls in with other youngsters from an orphanage — some innocent, others chancers, all flawed and all vulnerable. And what has happened to Mama, who was supposed to meet the pair at the port?
Most of the narration is told from Malik’s point of view and recounted with the minimum of literary embellishment, as befits the experience of a bewildered ten-year-old. Buffeted by the winds of chance and change, subject to the orders or whims of others, he nevertheless shows commendable resolution and a touching faithfulness to what he holds dear, whether the memory of his mother or the physical presence of the cat he adopts. Reliance on virtue, he recognises, is not enough, for when the chips are down you can only control what you alone have control of; this is why whenever occasion allows he doggedly practices his sleight-of-hand conjuring trick, a technique that will unexpectedly come in useful.
I find it hard to overpraise this book, so much of it rings true. Characterisation is sharp and memorable, whether of children or adults, from the orphans on the boat to the adults, variously villainous, morally ambiguous or true Good Samaritans (such as Lucy Kellaway and the ship purser). The vicissitudes through which Malik has to go keeps up the almost unbearable tension so that the reader often despairs of any happy resolution. And the empathy that the author encourages in the reader is surely one that all will recognise and want to nurture — all, that is, except those who remain insensitive or with closed minds where outsiders are concerned. A shame as, one way or another, we are all outsiders, or could be.
In the Reading Challenge this counts as a book at the bottom of my TBR pile — ‘bottom’ in that I’d received this relatively recently and so was a late addition to the titles I’d lined up to read in the challenge