Tag Archives: refugee crisis

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’

I started re-reading Patrick Ness’ incomparable ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy earlier this week just because it has been years since I last treated myself to it, and it is one of my all-time favourite stories to boot. I began to read it before the current media focus on the ongoing refugee crisis, and before Ness himself began this incredible fundraising campaign, which has (at time of writing) made over £200,000 available to Save the Children UK in order to help the struggling refugee families. But, in light of these developments, I’m writing this review with the aim of encouraging anyone who has never read the Chaos Walking books to buy and read them – or, indeed, any of Patrick Ness’ books. He has written many. His endeavours to help the dispossessed have made the last few days bearable for me, and (I’m sure) for many others. I know of no better way to support him than by – firstly, and obviously – donating to his cause, but also buying his books, and those of the other authors who have pitched in to help. The success of his campaign has truly been an amazing thing to witness and be part of.

In any case. On with the review.

Image: booksandrelatednonsense.tumblr.com

Image: booksandrelatednonsense.tumblr.com

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Walker Books, 2008) tells the story of Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown. He is weeks away from turning thirteen, a birthday which will mark the moment in which he becomes a man, and – apparently – when his whole life will change. Because the newly-fledged men (who were once Todd’s contemporaries) stop speaking to him and including him in their lives once they pass their own thirteenth birthdays, he is friendless at the book’s beginning, save for his formidable, loyal, loving and clever dog, Manchee. He lives on a farm with his foster fathers, Ben and Cillian, who have raised him as their own since the deaths of his parents many years before.

The story is set in the future, where colonisers and settlers (presumably from Earth) have come to a ‘new world’ in search of a free and peaceful life, one free of discrimination. The planet they arrived on had a native population, known as the Spackle, whom Todd has been raised to believe are now extinct. The Spackle were dangerous, responsible for a virus which killed the women of Prentisstown, including Todd’s mother, and most of the men, and which caused the men who were left over to suffer with Noise, which essentially renders their every thought audible to anyone around them. Privacy is unknown. A man’s thoughts – even while he dreams – are broadcast, appearing like clouds of pictures around his head and as a ‘soundtrack’. The virus also made it possible to hear the voices of animals, so every beast, from Manchee to the livestock in the fields, are also broadcasting their thoughts, simplistic and repetitive as they might be. This means that Todd’s world is filled, edge to edge, with constant sound, the Noise making peace impossible to find, blending together to make a torrent of meaningless babble which must be aggravating, even for those who are used to living with it. Then, one day, as he explores a swamp not far from his home, Todd and Manchee come across something they’ve never known before: a patch of eerie silence, which shouldn’t exist…

As soon as Todd discovers this silence, his world changes. Ben and Cillian urge him to leave, straight away, telling him that he must reach another settlement – even though Todd has been raised to believe Prentisstown is the only settlement on his planet. In the confusion of his leaving, the men of Prentisstown attack Todd’s home, putting his fathers’ lives at risk, and he is pitched out alone into the swamp (where the crocs live) with only Manchee and a backpack, containing his late mother’s journal, to keep him on the right path. Thus begins an adventure whereby Todd finds himself meeting the most unexpected person possible, being chased by an army, and discovering why, exactly, his status as the ‘last boy’ in Prentisstown was so important.

This book is filled with brilliant characters (human and animal alike – I defy you to find a fictional dog more memorable and lovable than Manchee), and some of the most gripping, realistic – despite the literally otherworldly setting! – and emotionally affecting dialogue and set-pieces in modern fiction. It’s incredibly evocative, using slang and non-standard spelling to evoke dialect and accent, and as taut as a guitar string. The tension never lets up, the stakes never fail, and in Mayor Prentiss, Ness has created one of the most well-rounded and interesting baddies I’ve ever read. It is violent, immediate, blood-thirsty in places, and in other places it can be genuinely terrifying, because it confronts the darkest impulses in the human heart. But it also throbs with love – that between friends, between a boy and his dog, between a long-lost mother and her adored son, and that between a pair of tender foster fathers who give their all for the child they have sworn to protect. It truly is a book which promises much and delivers on it, and one which more than stands up to a re-read. It deals with issues like slavery, injustice, genocide, religious fundamentalism, sexual and gender-based inequality, colonialism, power imbalances, tyranny, and more, and all in the form of a brilliantly written, masterfully crafted tale. This is a book which tells of other worlds, ones intended to surpass and improve on our own, but which bear all the ill fruit of our own weaknesses.

YA literature is all about vampires and werewolves? I think not. Read this book, be amazed, and you’ll immediately find yourself craving its sequels. It’s a challenge, and my gauntlet is thrown!

Paralysis

Yesterday evening I was stuck for something to cook for dinner. I had a lot of random stuff in the fridge (including peppers, onions, half a jar of sundried tomato pesto and some black olives which were possibly on the turn) and so I made a sort of tomato-ey gumbo with whatever I had to hand, and then my eye fell on an odd little box of artisan grain my husband had picked up on a shopping trip a few days before. I’d never used it before, but it looked intriguing.

‘How hard can it be?’ I thought. I measured out the appropriate amount, cooked it as per the instructions, and kept an eagle eye. It smelled strange, but not bad. We ate it all when it was ready, and it was flippin’ lovely – even if I do say so myself. It was only after dinner was done that I thought to put the name of the grain into Google to see what else I could do with it, and one of the first hits I got was that this grain – called freekeh – is commonly used in Syria.

A dish made with freekeh - not, needless to say, the one I made! Photo Credit: avlxyz via Compfight cc

A dish made with freekeh – not, needless to say, the one I made!
Photo Credit: avlxyz via Compfight cc

That gave me pause.

I wonder how commonly used it is in today’s Syria. I wonder how many families are sitting down to a meal of freekeh, lamb, cumin and coriander today, right now, in that beleaguered country. It made my meal feel strange within me; the idea that I had eaten the traditional food of a country which has been, and is being, ripped into tiny shreds, shedding its terrified people like dandelion seeds on the wind, made me upset. It brought me face to face, again, with the disgusting reality of our time, the humanitarian crisis which is spreading like an inkblot across the face of the earth.

Nobody can have missed the dreadful images in the media yesterday. I don’t want to describe them, even, let alone link to an article containing them or go so far as to share them here myself. Let it be enough to say that such images, used as clickbait by magazines and newspapers, shared – perhaps in good faith, or in a well-meaning way, by people who were ‘appalled’ – should never have been made public in the way they were. Lives were lost in the most tragic way imaginable. The people were not actors in a movie; they were not posed for effect. They were real people, with families and loved ones and personal histories and dreams of a better future, and they died.

They died, and we used their final images to sell newspapers and drive website traffic.

I am not a policy-maker nor a lawmaker nor even a person who knows, particularly, what the solution to the refugee crisis is. I know every country in Europe is not wealthy, my own included, and we all have problems of our own to deal with. Ireland has a huge homeless population, and many people who live in poverty – at least, by our own standards. We have a massive drug problem, not just confined to our cities. We aren’t good at dealing with immigrants, generally, tending to leave people who arrive here as economic migrants or refugees in ‘direct provision‘ – one step up from prison – for years on end while their cases are ‘processed’. I do not know how to help the people fleeing persecution, war, terror and tyranny in Syria and elsewhere. I just know that we must do something. We must demand that our government steps up their commitment to take refugees, in far greater numbers than they’re currently promising. We must overhaul our systems. We must find space, not only to deal with the people fleeing for their lives who so desperately need our help, but also to deal with our own people who are lost in the system. I don’t accept that there is no money there to accomplish this; I don’t accept that there is no public will to make this a reality. Nobody wants to see a repeat of yesterday’s terrible news. The people of Europe, at grassroots level, are donating food and goods and money in huge amounts to support and welcome the refugees – it’s the lawmakers, and the boundary-guards, who are dragging their heels.

People are not fleeing Syria because they’ve heard Europe is a gravy train. People are fleeing Syria because their own rulers are throwing them to the dogs. People are fleeing because they have no choice. Who would choose to do what they’re doing, unless there was literally no option? And what sort of people would throw up barriers at the other end, trapping those running for their lives against a wall of bureaucracy, stopping them from finding a safer place to bring their children up in? I don’t want to be part of that wall, but it can be hard to avoid feeling paralysed in the face of so much need, so much sorrow, so much desperation and anger and fear.

I don’t know what to do. I just know that we can’t leave people to die. All I’ve managed to do so far is sign a petition to ask my government to step up its response. It feels like such a feeble and meaningless thing, but I honestly don’t know what other action I can take. And who am I to even have an opinion, anyway, just one tiny person in one small country on the fringes of the European continent?

I’m a human being, just like every one of those refugees. That’s who. And I don’t want any more of them to die on the beaches of my continent. Not in my name.