Review: ‘Boy, Everywhere’ by A.M. Dassu

Cover art by Daby Zainab Faidhi

Until I read Boy, Everywhere, I never knew that children’s voices were right there, back in the origins of the conflict of Syria. In 2011, seeing uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, fourteen-year-old Mouawiya Syasneh and his friends wrote ‘Your Turn Next, Doctor’ on the wall of their school in (in reference to President Bashar al-Assad’s former career in ophthalmology). Detainment of the teenagers (for over a month) along with their abuse by police triggered protests which, in turn, brought the full force of Assad’s regime down upon his people. ‘So a war began and millions of people became homeless all around the world because some kids wrote some bad stuff about the government,’ summarises Sami, A.M. Dassu’s protagonist. ‘Insane.’

Sami is not much younger than Syasneh; he only learns about the graffiti tale and the history of the war, from his Mama, when the family are already fleeing the country. He has grown used to the conflict, he says: to electricity blackouts, an army checkpoint outside his school, to stories about friends of friends getting killed or injured. Yet he has also been relatively untouched by the war, even knowing that his surgeon father has been looking after the wounded. Sami’s story begins in a bubble of comfort and normality – wealth, in fact: maids, drivers, PlayStations, tablets. A reader like me, for whom the conflict is safely ‘elsewhere’, has an unnerving experience in those opening chapters, waiting for the blithe, likeable young protagonist to feel the jolt of remote matter hitting home. Unnerving, not only for what we know will follow for Sami, but what we recognise in his complacency.

It takes a few pages for the novel to turn nightmarish. Violence erupts close to home, and impacts brutally on Sami’s family. Then, his parents are making plans, and events move entirely out of his control, sometimes beyond his understanding. Why are the family selling their car, in anxious haste? Why can’t Sami tell his friends what they’re doing? Why are they planning to set out to sea in a fishing boat, when the whole family know the risks? Can anything ever be done for his sister – or the friend he makes on their journey – or any of them? Dassu does a great job of taking us through the experience of countless desperate refugees, but she deserves more praise for making Sami’s situation feel particular to him: his guilt, his anger, his fear.

In particular, this is a novel about Sami’s efforts to remain true to himself while his world is in disarray: to maintain his sense of morality and civilisation whilst slipping between the boundaries of society. It would be easy to make this the story of someone forced into passivity and victimhood, particularly as the novel progresses and becomes, if anything, even darker (despite following the legal process of claiming asylum to the letter, Sami and his family do not find peace and security on their arrival to Manchester). Sami finds himself in opposition to his family, as much as he is to those who are hostile toward him. His story becomes an internalised one, his actions increasingly hard to predict. Is he going to do the right thing – and what, precisely, would that look like?

I’d have to go to Turkey. That was where we’d flown to before getting into Europe. I went back to Google and searched for a map of Turkey. I memorised the five major cities, went back to the Manchester Airport website, and typed them in. Finally! There was a flight from Terminal 1 to Antalya in the evening. The flight took four hours and forty minutes. I can survive that in a luggage hold, I told myself. I had to.

               This is a thought-provoking and heart-breaking read at times; for young readers learning about the experience of refugees, it will be eye-opening, while for readers like me who should know more about these experiences, it’s a spur towards learning, and doing, more. It’s also a gripping novel, one that I couldn’t resist returning to for just one more chapter – and then just one more. It’s a story about trauma and disassociation, but in small, powerful ways, it’s about connection: how strangers can support one another, how seemingly remote experiences are part of the same story, how family can be tested, and endure. Never lapsing into sentiment or hollow documentary, this story is alive and unpredictable, embodying all the optimism and pain of a child’s voice speaking in the midst of conflict.

Boy, Everywhere is published by Old Barn Books. You can buy it from Waterstones here, from here, or support your local independent. Despite my first assumptions on seeing the front cover, I wouldn’t recommend it to readers younger than twelve. For younger readers interested in the experience of refugees, there’s a great list here put together by BookTrust. Meanwhile, you can directly nudge things in a better direction via this organisation:

#SA4QE2021 The Trokeville Way, by Russell Hoban

Cover art by Patrick Benson

At one point near the end of The Trokeville Way, a character brings a book of Lafcadio Hearn’s ghost stories to the protagonist in his hospital bed. She inscribes it to him with the words: Strange stories for strange Nick. You can’t blame me for taking that personally (a feeling not diluted by the fact that Trokeville’s Nick is three months off thirteen years old, exactly the age I was when Jonatha Cape originally published this novel, back in 1996). Russell Hoban is not just a strange writer I like, not even a writer whose strangeness speaks to me, but a writer whose strangeness speaks to a strangeness in me. This is a dreamlike novel, about a lonely landscape with the gathering twilight that precedes a storm, a feeling of repressed violence and the beckoning lights of a town just over the horizon. If it feels like familiar territory, that’s probably because it’s the sort of terrain explored in the majority of Hoban’s novels, but it also stirs a strange sense of recognition in me…

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, Sir Edward BurneJones

Strange! I’ve seen that place before… It’s a re-reading for me, maybe ten years after the first time. For some reason, I didn’t remember that the cover is misleading. Beautiful haunting work from Patrick Benson, of course, but not quite right for this story: it implies something in the line of Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, a spooky, slightly magic story for kids. The opening chapter suggests much the same, with almost-teenager Nick losing his fight with a school bully, and then buying a strange pile of oddments from the mysterious ex-conjuror Moe Nagic on his walk home. The word ‘bastard’ glints warningly in that first chapter, and as the novel progresses, there are more and more jarring notes, ‘shit’ and ‘wanker’ and so on. As the pages turn, the book seems to shift in our hands, turning from Middle-Grade to Young Adult: provisional terms that weren’t really in use in 1996. Interestingly, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights came out the year before, and he seems to do something similar, with the tone of his trilogy mirroring its heroes blurring into adolescence, only Hoban does it more quickly and therefore more unnervingly.

Of course, it wouldn’t do for a Hoban novel to give us what we expected on the first page. You hand over your ticket at the door, descend down the escalator, and after that the Tube map is only of ostensible use. You get the strangest feeling – Strange! – that the author himself didn’t quite know where the little bridge – I’m sorry, brudge – in Moe Nagic’s mysterious puzzle – that is, juzzle – was going to lead him and his protagonist. At times, the book reads to me like a first draft, frustrating in places but rich with authentic, deeply felt mystery. If Woolf or Burroughs wrote a teen novel, it would take a similar approach. In the strange world of the juzzle, Nick not only confronts his school bully again and again, but talks with his parents about their own secret frustrations, none of which become any clearer, even when he’s back in the ‘real’ world. The world of his parents’ interior lives feels eternally over the next horizon, like Trokeville, just as the power of burgeoning sexuality is always elsewhere: a troke, halfway between a trick and a stroke.

Then there is the terror that lies in wait throughout the novel: ‘There’s no magic, but there’s Moe Nagic,’ says the conjuror at the start of the novel, his career of illusions thrown away, his marriage in disarray. (Moe specifically pins his age as being 47, which by my amateur sleuthing puts him at just the age of Russell Hoban, when he found he was incapable of writing a sequel to his first big hit – The Mouse and his Child – and wrote his first novel for adults, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, 1972). “Do you want there to be magic?” a character asks Nick at one point, and he tells her he does – and what could be more frightening than finding magic and losing it? Moe’s ex-wife is described as magical to more than one character, but she’s looking for magic of her own. The year after Trokeville, Harry Potter’s ersatz variety of wizardry first arrived, and for my money, the magic in children’s literature has overall been more programmatic and functional ever since. Nonetheless, Hoban’s kind of magic is not quite like anyone else’s either.

Italian Scene: A Bridge among Hills, with a Distant Town c.1796 Joseph Mallord William Turner and Thomas Girtin 1775-1851, 1775-1802 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Or maybe that’s not quite true either. The strangeness speaking to strangeness that I mentioned at the start of this strange book review is a trope of Hoban’s writing: from the Vermeer painting that haunts his Medusa Frequency and beyond, to bats on Chinese pottery, a hippogriff in Angelica Lost and Found, and even the sound of approaching trains at Ealing Broadway station. All these seem to speak of the same lonely spaces, the yearning, terror and beauty: in this novel it’s in a Grace Jones song, a painting by Burne Jones and a watercolour by Thomas Girtin. All these different people – and the painter of Nick’s brudge juzzle – somehow connected with this other level of reality, acknowledged it, made works of art with it; making it part of our world, so that our experience is deepened, enriched, sadder without ever quite being explicable. you’re almost thirteen, nick. nou’re old enough to understand what i’m going to tell you, Nick’s mind tells him frankly, at one point. there are no separate things. I’m almost thirty-seven, and I’m only just beginning to get it.

Strange, that.

I wrote about The Trokeville Way today because it’s Russell Hoban’s birthday, and fans of his will be toasting him and recommending him all around the world. Hoban’s most famous children’s book, The Mouse and his Child, is certainly not one to be missed, but he also wrote a huge body of picturebooks which are pretty much all essential too. My favourite is possibly The Twenty Elephant Restaurant, but The Marzipan Pig is stunningly poetic, while the Frances books are witty and wise. That’s truly just scratching the surface. If you like the sound of The Trokeville Way (which is not print), some of its themes are explored in The Medusa Frequency, and some in his YA graphic novel with Alexis Deacon, Soonchild. If you’ve not read any, I think my all-time favourite is Turtle Diary – and after that, there’s always more to discover.

Meanwhile, Grace Jones’ version of Libertango is here.