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Book review: Travellers by Helon Habila – cool and adroit

The acclaimed Nigerian author’s ‘novel-in-stories’ about six African refugees in Europe is rich and complex

Helon Habila: ‘open-minded approach’. Photograph: Heike Steiweg
Helon Habila: ‘open-minded approach’. Photograph: Heike Steiweg

From his 2002 debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, about a reporter jailed in the 90s under the regime of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, to 2010’s Oil on Water, a hostage narrative set amid the petroleum industry’s ruin of the Niger delta, Helon Habila has tackled weighty issues without solemnity. It’s a virtue on show once again in Travellers, a nuanced, often surprising novel-in-stories about the experiences of six African refugees in Europe, and his first book set outside his native Nigeria.

Its unnamed narrator (like Habila, a Nigerian based in the US) joins his American wife, Gina, in Berlin, where she has a year’s fellowship to produce a series of portraits of “real migrants”. When he starts drinking with Mark, an anarchist squatter from Malawi who has been rejected by Gina as a prospective subject – not real enough – it’s a sign of marital tension as well as the novel’s suspicion of Gina’s authenticity fetish.

As the narrator learns why Mark – born Mary, it transpires – ran away from his pastor father, we infer that ideas of “realness” might boil down to prejudice by another name.

Mark’s is only the first story the narrator gets mixed up in; later, he meets a hunger-striking asylum seeker who flees Boko Haram only to fall foul of Theresa May’s hostile environment, and a Libyan surgeon employed as a bouncer after losing his wife and son en route from Tripoli, stubbornly bringing his 11-year-old daughter to the family’s prearranged rendezvous at Checkpoint Charlie every Sunday, in a heartbreaking denial of reality.

Habila’s acknowledgments thank “the voices whose stories animate this book… for trusting me”, which adds to a sense that he’s drawing on as-told-to testimony.

In the standout chapter, a Zambian woman travels to Switzerland to meet her brother’s wife, jailed for his manslaughter. She learns that in Europe, her brother, David, went by the name Moussa and claimed to be from Mali for reasons to do with his feelings about his father, a once-exiled poet who, drunk on fame, pandered to western liberals keen to view Africa as “one huge Gulag archipelago”.

The novel’s unassuming title is suggestive of Habila’s cool, open-minded approach to a hot-button subject. While he leaves us in little doubt of the horrors his characters have escaped, he seldom invites us to gawp. Adroitly teasing out the rich quiddity of his characters’ diverse journeys, he instead makes the simple yet valuable point that refugees’ lives are as irreducibly complex as anyone else’s.

• To order Travellers by Helon Habilago to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Book review: We, the Survivors by Tash Aw

Prejudice and the refugee experience are examined in this taut novel set in Malaysia

After novels set in British Malaya, postcolonial Indonesia and modern-day Shanghai, Tash Aw’s new book stays in the present to tell a brutally discomfiting tale of social inequality in Malaysia.

It’s told by Ah Hock, a villager who, after a string of precarious jobs in and around Kuala Lumpur, lands on his feet managing a fish farm. But when a cholera epidemic leaves him without workers, he unwisely accepts help from a childhood friend, Keong, a one-time drug dealer and pimp now sourcing migrant slave labour for the palm oil industry.

As Aw retraces Ah Hock’s steps to this fateful turning point – his sense of morality running up against his need to maintain his toehold on a decent livelihood – we come to understand that his words are being transcribed by Su-Min, a sociology postgraduate returning to Malaysia after her studies in the US.

Ah Hock has agreed to her request for an interview after serving a jail sentence for a crime we don’t fully grasp until the novel’s end; brief interludes show them discussing how she might shape his story into something she thinks of as “narrative non-fiction”.

Aw’s structure allows him to sidestep the pitfalls of an enterprise that risks being seen as poverty porn – he’s opening our eyes to hardship while at the same time scrutinising the motives for doing so. We wonder what Su-Min seeks from Ah Hock’s story, but also why Ah Hock wants to tell it (he admits a punitive desire to give her more than she bargained for when she asks him to hold nothing back).

As a vegetarian who freaks out at the sight of a rat and tells Ah Hock “not to make assumptions about people’s sexuality based on traditional gender lines”, Su-Min is sent up a bit. But the novel isn’t simplistic, not least in its portrait of the complex contours of prejudice in Malaysian society. If Ah Hock suffers on account of his Chinese heritage, he knows he has it easier than many; the story turns on a group of Rohingya refugees being eyed by Keong as a solution to what Ah Hock’s wife calls his “manpower problem”.

A grim picture emerges of the Asian continent’s poor and less-poor, forced into a conflict shaped by western whims. Someone says: “Some politician in America decides that they can’t buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly 10 factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking world so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month, the entire port is on its knees.”

But Aw doesn’t rely on tub-thumping; his achievement is to make a global story personal. When he finally circles back to Ah Hock’s crime, the scene is managed briskly, in keeping with a tale that, however grim, is never solemn or overwrought. It even ends on a gentle note; still, the novel’s horrors can’t easily be pushed out of mind.

• We, the Survivors is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Book review: First Raise a Flag by Peter Martell

This chilling account of the war in South Sudan gives a voice to those trapped by the brutality.

An internally displaced girl collects water in the Sudd swamp in South Sudan. Photoh: Andreea Campeanu/Reuters
An internally displaced girl collects water in the Sudd swamp in South Sudan. Photoh: Andreea Campeanu/Reuters

Early in this readable, rigorous and important account of the tragedy of the world’s youngest nation, Peter Martell, a former BBC correspondent, explores the stories that the people of South Sudanhave told to one another about their shared heritage.

These “fireside fables” have been handed down through the generations: accounts of war, slavery, violence, defiance and rebellion that were instrumental in giving the hugely diverse communities of South Sudansomething approximating to a shared identity. Above all, they have reinforced the sense that they are people who have long been victims.

That historical suffering has been at the heart of these stories is entirely justified. The early chapters of First Raise a Flag cover the raids by heavily armed and organised slave traders who came down the Nile from the north in the 19th century to capture tens of thousands of men, women and children for sale into markets in the Middle East. There followed the far-from-benign neglect of British administrators who deliberately underdeveloped the south of Sudan. When the imperialists left in 1956, their rule was replaced by that of a political elite in Khartoum that displayed systematic brutality, authoritarianism and discrimination, irrespective of its ideological orientation.

That so many of those living in the lands beyond the Sudd, the vast swamp barring the upper course of the Nile and dividing the broadly Christian and “African” south of Sudan from the largely Arab and Muslim northern parts, might wish for independence after such appalling treatment by others is entirely understandable. The sacrifices made to achieve this aim were huge: up to 3 million people may have died in the successive wars fought by the southern Sudanese against Khartoum between 1956 and 2005, when a peace deal was finally concluded.

Though a bewildering array of local, regional and international actors – Ethiopia, Uganda, Eritrea, Libya, Cuba, Israel, the USSR – exploited the conflict with astonishing cynicism, there was rarely any sustained attention devoted to one of Africa’s longest wars by western media, policymakers or even humanitarians. When such interest eventually came, faith and blind optimism were more evident than deep consideration of how to achieve successful outcomes for the many millions whose lives should have mattered most. In 2011, with enthusiastic backing from the US and, especially, African American and conservative Christian lobbies (and George Clooney), South Sudan came into being, free at last.

Martell, a BBC reporter based in Juba, the new country’s capital, was there to witness the optimism and joy that greeted independence. His experience, gained over years of living in and reporting on the country, is invaluable and notably absent from many other accounts.

Historical narrative and careful analysis are thus mixed with interviews with individuals chosen to illustrate the broader story. Each draws a new portrait. Martell is a sympathetic and sensitive listener and his writing powerful and moving. We hear the voices of those who have fought, fled, struggled, hoped and suffered; we see both the celebrations and the skeletons.

There are few of the former, many of the latter. Martell carefully and accurately describes what has happened to South Sudan since 2011: a tragedy. There are many who can be blamed, but standing above them all are the new country’s venal, corrupt, brutal and brutalised leaders. These rapidly set about the systematic looting of billions of dollars from oil revenues, then unleashed armed men on civilians to rape, mutilate, burn, torture and kill on a horrific scale. As many as 400,000 have died in a civil war that, if currently suspended by a precarious truce, still threatens to become a genocide. This is a death toll to rival that in Syria. Millions have fled. Famine and cholera are killing daily. The country is a ruin.

On a reporting trip to Pibor, in the east of South Sudan, last year, I found misery of a depth I have rarely seen in 20 years of working in such places. The international community, with all its experts, peacekeepers, humanitarians and fine rhetoric, has proved singularly incapable of stopping atrocity upon atrocity.

None of this makes easy reading and Martell does not flinch from the details. But he also carefully explains why it has happened. The account of divisions within the ranks of the insurgent forces before independence is particularly useful and goes a long way to explaining the horror of today. The 1990s saw internecine violence on increasingly ethnic lines, with consequent famine and mass displacement. Martell rightly wonders why anyone helping create South Sudan would have thought there would be any improvement once the common enemy of Khartoum was removed.

There is little reason to be hopeful, though Martell does his best. Running through First Raise a Flag are references to storytelling: the fables told around the fireside, the narratives of witnesses and victims, the simplified bulletins the author broadcasts in his dispatches for the BBC, the propaganda of regimes and campaign groups, the lies of corrupt commanders.

“The stories of long ago were once themselves repeated and reinforced by new rounds of violence,” he writes. “In an oral culture, exact dates slip. History as a linear narrative is distorted, because stories are as alive now as they ever have been. These are not the dry, dull dates of faded textbooks. They are the events that had shaped life and have been fused into the history with blood.”

 First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peaceby Peter Martell is published by Hurst (£25). To order a copy for £25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

A novel of World War II espionage with an unlikely heroine

By Kate Atkinson
343 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.


All novels are spy novels, Ian McEwan once observed, and it’s a reasonable claim: Fiction nearly always relies on a clever observer to pry inside the minds and lives of its characters, to lay bare for the reader their deep motivations and intimate secrets. No wonder spies, like detectives, seem inherently literary figures, whether they’re real, invented or — as with the spies in Kate Atkinson’s intriguing new novel — a bit of both.

The spying in “Transcription” happens under the aegis of MI5, the British intelligence agency whose elite affiliations and Cold War defections are well known. Atkinson plumbs a more obscure realm of MI5’s activity: its infiltration, during World War II, of the so-called fifth column, a network of British Nazi sympathizers who revered Hitler and eagerly awaited Germany’s conquest of Europe. In an afterword, Atkinson explains that the sort of covert operation she has dramatized actually did take place. A British MI5 agent, posing as an agent of Nazi Germany, hosted regular meetings for fifth-column members in a London apartment wired with microphones. In an adjacent apartment, MI5 agents recorded their conversations.

Into these dramatic environs Atkinson injects one Juliet Armstrong, the “girl” (as in: “I need a girl”) selected by MI5 to transcribe the secretly recorded dialogues. “Transcription” visits Juliet at three periods of her life, which are nested like Russian dolls. At the outset, “just 60 years old,” she is struck by a car and knows she will die; two pages later, we meet her at 28, working for the BBC in 1950, a time when London (and virtually everyone in it) was still hobbled by the war. Fans of “Life After Life,” Atkinson’s 2013 masterpiece, will recognize the artful pathos with which she renders the war’s cratering effect on Londoners. But what interests Atkinson here is less the war’s aftermath than its simmering persistence. On the street during her lunch break, Juliet spots a man, Godfrey Toby, with whom she worked very closely back in 1940. But when she rushes up to greet him, he denies his identity, insisting she has mistaken him for someone else and leaving her shaken.


The novel then turns to 1940, when Juliet — 18, orphaned, given to sassy parenthetical observations — first joins MI5. Here the narrative really takes off; watching through Juliet’s irreverent eyes as MI5 recruits upper-class “girls” for possible spy work is fascinating and deliciously comic. “Pa’s a duke,” one drawls when Juliet notices a gold crest on her cigarettes. The amusement continues when Juliet is chosen (“plucked,” as the duke’s daughter puts it) to transcribe the fifth columnists’ recorded conversations from the apartment next door. Atkinson marvelously captures the sheltered, insouciant Juliet’s longing for experience: “Her éducation sexuelle (it was easier to think of it as something French) was woefully riddled with lacunae. They had drawn diagrams to show the domestic plumbing system at school in Housecraft. It was a pointless subject — how to lay a tea tray, what to feed an invalid, what to look for when buying meat (beef should be ‘marbled with fat’). How much more useful if they had taught you about sex.” Her wish for erotic transport settles on her boss, the enigmatic Peregrine Gibbons, who eventually invites her on a promising excursion to the country. The ensuing hilarity is best captured in the following couplet:

“‘Otters,’ he whispered, spreading a tarpaulin sheet on the riverbank.

“‘Sir?’ Had he said otters? Not seduction then.”

Atkinson’s use of comedy in the first half of the novel is unexpected and inspired; even the Dada-esque chunks of Juliet’s transcription are animated by our awareness of her exasperated confusion as she types them. When she is assigned her own false identity and charged with befriending a middle-aged woman who is a Nazi sympathizer, the humor tilts toward the madcap; Juliet is, at best, a sloppy and capricious spy. When a dead body turns up, it would appear to signal a change of tone, and the 1940 action stops just short, we’re told, of “the horror of what happened next.”

When “Transcription” shifts back to 1950, we find Juliet still partly in the employ of MI5; she has agreed — apparently not for the first time — to let her apartment be used as a safe house, in this case an overnight stay for a refugee scientist fleeing the Communist bloc. The resulting debacle is one of several new plots Atkinson sets in motion halfway through the novel: a snafu at the BBC program Juliet works on; an anonymous threat delivered to her at work; an odd-looking man and woman who seem to be following her; her own attempts to locate Godfrey Toby, whose path she crossed at the start; and her decision to track down the remaining fifth columnists whose conversations she transcribed to see whether any might be plotting revenge. The overburdened narrative loses focus, and the undisclosed “horror” from 1940 asserts itself as a leitmotif in the form of ominous dialogue snippets — “We’ve had rather a shock” and “We must finish her off,” among others — that float through the text. As a strategy for sustaining tension, this is risky; the horrifying event, when at last divulged, is almost inevitably less horrifying than the reader has come to expect.

The deeper problem in the last half of “Transcription” lies with Juliet. Beguiling as an excitable ingénue, she becomes cipherlike as the book progresses. Her actions seem unintelligible at times, her plucky asides almost perversely frivolous in the face of serious events. Asked to clean up after a scene of bloody violence she herself has caused, Juliet reflects: “Why was it that the females of the species were always the ones left to tidy up. … I expect Jesus came out of the tomb … and said to his mother, ‘Can you tidy it up a bit back there?’” Her inner life feels shrouded; without it, the novel lacks an emotional core that might have unified its ungainly plot. When asked whether she ever despairs, Juliet’s instinct is to equivocate. “Hardly ever. Occasionally. Quite often,” she thinks. “No, not at all,” she replies aloud. What’s the truth? The reader has no more idea than her interlocutor.

Atkinson is keeping a secret about Juliet, and its revelation comes as a major surprise toward the end of the novel. Juliet’s opacity may be part of Atkinson’s strategy. Spies, after all, are notoriously hard to read — it’s part of the job description. “The mark of a good agent is when you have no idea which side they’re on,” Juliet is advised by her boss. But a good agent can prove a frustrating protagonist; a spy may require a second spy to make her spill her secrets.

Jennifer Egan’s most recent novel is “Manhattan Beach.”

Book review: Presido by By Randy Kennedy | Lee Child Reviews a Debut Novel That’s Vintage Texas Noir

Benjamin Marra

By Randy Kennedy
303 pp. Touchstone. $26.

My first reaction to “Presidio” was to wonder about the author’s name. For a noir novel about hopeless criminals on the run, “Randy Kennedy” seemed too good to be true. I assumed it was made up. The only Randy Kennedy I knew about was a guy I had read for years in The New York Times, a journalist who breathed the rarefied air of the international art business. As it happens, I have a friend who covers the same beat for Bloomberg, so maybe I feel protective of the genus. I found myself wondering how the art guy from The Times would feel about someone borrowing his byline for a slick thriller set in rural Texas more than 45 years ago.

Then I read “Presidio” and — review spoiler alert — found a fluent, mordant, authentic, propulsive narrative, wonderfully lit from within by an intriguing main character. Before writing this review, I found out what I could about the author. Always safer that way. Maybe Randy was a woman. I wouldn’t want to use the wrong pronouns. But no, it turned out Randy wasn’t a woman. It turned out Randy was the art guy from The Times after all, only now he’s the special projects editor for a New York gallery. This is his first novel and it left me hoping he writes many more.

“Presidio” is set in the Texas borderlands in the very early 1970s, which feels like a long time ago. The landscape against which the story unfolds seems both strange and familiar. Strange because this is Texas before the internet, before personal computers, before cellphones, before connectivity. The impression given is of an inconsistent patchwork of small municipalities and tiny police departments with vast voids in between, a land with miles of brush and the occasional nodding pump jack and endless county roads, along which all manner of characters can lurk and hide. In particular, the border with Mexico feels different. It’s an amiable and permeable symbolic barrier through which people come and go at will — to work, to buy and sell, to hide, to disappear.

But the Texas of the novel is also familiar because it’s at a tectonic moment, on the cusp between old and new, that has been written about before, and very well. Kennedy rises to the challenge and succeeds so well that both Larry McMurtry and James Lee Burke have offered their praise.

Kennedy was raised in small-town Texas, which some will feel made his task easier — but others will know made it harder. A writer must find the inner core of his story, and to get there through the obstacles of habit and familiarity adds extra yardage.

Kennedy’s various narrative voices sound like those of taciturn individuals who may never have heard a complete sentence except in church, who are now somehow compelled to speak, as if on the witness stand, at first hesitant, then finding sudden new pleasure in expressing themselves: “Early on I made the decision to confine myself to the wide open of the High Plains because it was the place I knew best and because it has always given me the comforting illusion that I can see whatever’s coming at me from 40 miles.” Or: “He went by the house at full speed and traveled a hundred yards more before he took the car gently into the ditch and onto a harvested milo field alongside a windbreak ridge thick with tumbleweeds snagged in mesquite and shinnery oak.”

Or, more particularly, a sentence late in the book that describes wrecks in a junkyard: “Seeing the damage to each of the cars it was impossible to keep from imagining what had happened to the people riding in them at the time of the calamity.” That “calamity” is a triple-play word choice. It nails the period, the location and the halting country-polite tone. No other word in the English language would work better there.

All of the above would make for a happy recommendation, but I haven’t gotten to the best part yet, which is Troy Alan Falconer, Kennedy’s main character, whose flight to the border with his brother — and the young woman they accidentally kidnap — directs the movement of the plot. Inevitably, he’ll be called a car thief. But he isn’t really. Or not only, or not deliberately. He’s a sensitive soul, at times bitterly cynical, at times charmingly naïve, always courteous, in the grip of a desperate compulsion to own nothing at all. To get dressed and get around, he has to borrow, usually from motel rooms when the guest is in the shower or at the pool. “I know you must want to understand how a person could come to this,” Troy tells us. “I just know I woke up one morning and the world wasn’t the same and I couldn’t find a way back to the way it was before.” His coping strategy is a mixture of pride and shame: “Sometimes I go into post offices and leaf through binders of state posters, looking to see if there’s a sketch resembling me, a description of what I’ve done — but there never is.” Is he disappointed? Or boasting? Or both?

Much of Troy’s story is told through a type of confession, which begins with the book’s terse opening line: “Later, in the glove box, the police found a binder of notes. It said. …”

Kennedy was betting you’d read on. You should.

Lee Child is the author of the Jack Reacher thriller series.

Book review: House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma – Zimbabwe’s story extraordinarily told

This Zimbabwean debut is not an easy book to describe. To call it clever or ambitious is to do it a disservice – it is both, but also more than that. It is definitely not faultless, but it is large enough and unusual enough to shrug off its defects and still leave the reader impressed.

The opening section features a tenant, 24-year-old Zamani, who aspires to make his landlord his father and his landlady his mother – to make them love him more than they loved their missing son, Bukhosi. A simple enough conceit, but Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a wily writer, perhaps as wily as her main character; for as soon as the reader thinks he or she has figured out the story’s trajectory, the narrative takes an unexpected turn.

Bukhosi went missing in 2007, during a secessionist rally in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The protesters want to form a majority Ndebele republic, which they will call Mthwakazi, after a precolonial kingdom. Their revolt is fuelled by the massacre of the Ndebeles by Robert Mugabe’s government in 1983. This massacre, dubbed Gukurahundi – “the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring shoots” – is Zimbabwe’s original sin, and here forms the central and recurring concern of the novel. Zamani was conceived, violently, symbolically, on the night of the Gukurahundi massacres. Tshuma exhumes her country’s history, starting with the arrival of Cecil Rhodes, through the vanquishing of Ndebele royals King Lobengula and Queen Lozikeyi, and on to the Ian Smith years as prime minister and the war of independence, and finally to independence and beyond. On the eve of independence on 17 April 1980, we see Bob Marley performing in front of the new black leaders, and police whipping and tear-gassing the masses, a foreshadowing of dark days to come: “The police, overcome by fear, slipped into animated violence like a second skin; they began thwacking the people with their batons, and the people wailed, so that their independence brimmed over into the night in a collective howl.”

Tshuma balances this broad retelling of history with the personal narratives of Zamani and his hosts, Abednego and Mama Agnes, through an almost dizzying ability to shift focus from character to character. Zamani uses whisky and drugs to seduce his “surrogate father”, who is a recovering alcoholic, into recounting his personal history – or “hi-story” as Zamani likes to call it, alluding to the fragmented and troubled past of his country.

House of Stone is not a book for the faint-hearted. There are rapes and the cutting open of pregnant stomachs; a barn full of screaming women and children set aflame. There are no heroes here, only people forced by circumstances to perform the most unspeakable acts to survive. And yet, not all the characters are villains: there is the beautiful Thandi, who dreams of becoming the mother of the revolution – Zimbabwe’s Angela Davis – but ends up settling for the unimpressive Abednego and is later killed by agents of the new independent Zimbabwe. This is how nations are built, Tshuma seems to be telling us: nothing is ever what it appears to be. The past is filled with pain and shame. Abednego’s father, we learn, is not really his father. When Abednego becomes uncooperative and uncontrollable, even with the promise of more whisky and drugs, Zamani turns his focus on to Mama Agnes, who is not the pious woman she appears. She is deep in an adulterous relationship that goes back to her teenage years.

Sometimes the book is too dizzying: as soon as we have accepted one revelation we are blindsided by another; and yet we keep suspending disbelief, for by now we are complicit with the author in this playful, tongue-in-cheek yet serious game of recreating “hi-story”. We wait to see how far the two-faced narrator will go to ingratiate himself with his hosts, even as he hints at the real reasons behind his scheming. There seems to be method in his madness after all.

Tshuma is incapable of writing a boring sentence: she inhabits her narration so totally that even the most absurd and silly actions become believable. The wordplay and absurdist plot lines act as comic relief, but the author never lets us forget the serious stuff even for a minute, and it is this balance that makes the book work. By the end she has managed to not only sum up Zimbabwean history, but also all of African colonial history: from devastating colonialism to the bitter wars of independence to the euphoria of self-rule and the disillusionment of the present. It is an extraordinary achievement for a first novel.

Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls is published by Penguin. House of Stone is published by Atlantic. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

You will feel magic ripples as you go through these novels

By Daniel Jose Older

Some books are like tour guides. Grinning, they whisk you through enchanted avenues, each carefree laugh rehearsed and calculated, each anecdote sliding a little too smoothly into place. All the while, your eye wanders down the crooked back streets, and you wonder what myth and magic really goes on down there, what true, dirty, uncomfortable histories have been covered over.

Other books feel more like an old friend — they take you by the hand and lead you through their hometown, explaining what needs to be explained, trusting you’ll figure out the rest.

K. Sello Duiker

THE HIDDEN STAR (Cassava Republic Press, 210 pp., $17.95; ages 10 and up), the third and final novel by the South African novelist K. Sello Duiker (who died in 2005), immediately and refreshingly places itself in the second category. It has no interest in translating itself or its humanity for an outside gaze. It doesn’t bother italicizing non-English words or even telling us what they mean; we’ll figure it out, or look it up, or not. Instead, “The Hidden Star” launches us right into the story: 11-year-old Nolitye, a rock collector who lives with her mom outside the suburbs of Soweto in a dusty township called Phola, discovers a powerful stone that not only grants her wishes and makes her giggle, it also leads her on a magical quest to collect a series of enchanted items. Along the way, she is thrust into a vast supernatural struggle among entities that roam the late-night streets of Phola, some of whom have been snatching up children.

Nolitye gathers a crew around her, including her best friend, Bheki, and Four Eyes, who was initially a reluctant member of the local gang of bullies, the Spoilers. Amid the gradual gathering of supernatural mayhem, daily life in Phola trudges on: The kids go to school, deal with their families, navigate various class distinctions, hang out with street dogs (who have their own internal strife to deal with, in a delightful subplot) and stand up to the Spoilers, led by Rotten Nellie. This last bit weaves in nicely with the larger story, though it also relies on some unnecessary weight-based slapstick.

The magic reveals itself gradually, and it is deeply entwined with the vivid world Duiker has created. From the beginning, we find out that kids in Phola can understand and talk to the local street dogs. It’s simply a part of life (only certain drunken adults seem to have the same ability — a nuance I was happy to see never explained). Only at the very end do we end up in a whole other magical realm, but by the time we’ve gotten there and the fantastical creatures and talking animals start to show up in legion, we’re already so used to the slow build of imaginary elements that it feels as if this other world has been there all along, lurking, waiting.

“The Hidden Star” expands in concentric circles. The plot sometimes seems to amble, but not in an aimless way. While it has its own rhythm and cadence, it never stalls out or drags, just slides along toward its finale as the mystery unravels amid daily life in the townships. Here is the book as old friend, not cheesy tour guide, and so it shows us the old men on their stoops, the early morning exodus of workers to Soweto, the quiet, sometimes contentious way a neighborhood collectively mourns its lost children and holds tight to the ones it has left.

In one lovely passage, Nolitye reaches a spaza shop “just as the sun disappears below the horizon. The sky is awash with a deep red color…. A cloud of smoke hangs above Phola, but it is not thick enough to blot out the moon that is climbing up behind the shanties.” And in this tiny moment of balance between day and night, Duiker seems to paint the whole universe spinning on its axis around the churning events of his story.

Duiker has created a vibrant cityscape populated by living, breathing, multifaceted human beings who seem a world away from the faceless Hollywood stock characters we see so often in depictions of African poverty. Sure, magic ripples just below the surface of these moonlit streets, but first and foremost we learn about life in this neighborhood, the loves and losses and labors of its residents. It is neither idealized haven nor melodramatic hellscape, but something much more alive. Simply put, it’s a home.

Jaleigh JohnsonCreditMark Jones

The very element of magic itself is at stake in THE DOOR TO THE LOST (Delacorte, 305 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up), by Jaleigh Johnson. In a world called Talhaven, magic is used somewhat like electricity, after having been imported by the Vorans, mysterious wizards from another dimension, via a wormhole that one day self-destructed. Only a dwindling supply of magic was left, along with a boat full of Voran children who have no memories of life before the Great Catastrophe. Talhaven collectively blames the children for all that went wrong. Magic, now a rare commodity, is labeled dangerous and bad, and the refugees barely scrape by doing magical favors in the Night Market and trying to avoid the Constables and the vigilante Red Watchers, as well as the zombified sufferers of a strange new disease called the Frenzy.

The refreshing heart of this fun, exciting story, though, is friendship. When we meet Rook and Drift, both refugees from Vora, they are already the best of friends. It’s a pleasure watching them hang on to that when an illicit transaction goes awry, and they try to piece together their shattered pasts and find a way back to a homeland they don’t remember.

Johnson, whose previous books include the World of Solace series, has written an imaginative and memorable tale, but there are stumbles along the way. Some details feel overly familiar, and there are a few clumsy reveals and reversals. The story initially presents itself as a complex, timely meditation on the struggles of a refugee trapped between two worlds, an adventure with a thoughtful, nuanced core. Toward the end, “The Door to the Lost” seems to discard the hard work it did building a complex, xenophobic society, giving way to a more simplified warning about the dangers of fighting oppression too fervently. As a result, we’re never really sure just what we’re up against until it’s too late to make sense of it as a palpable threat.

But the many well-rendered, imaginative and heartfelt scenes along the way make the journey worthwhile. At one point, Rook, whose magic power is the ability to open up doorways just by drawing them in chalk, creates a tiny entranceway to a music club late on a sleepless night. The performers unknowingly serenade our heroes to sleep: “The high, pure notes drifted into the room like a welcome guest. A moment later, the violin joined in, and the two musicians played the song together as if they had done so since birth. A lullaby, just as Rook had asked.” Elsewhere, Johnson describes a magical fox’s bristling and then coming around to trusting with such vivid, thoughtful prose, the character seems to saunter off the page, fully alive.

Daniel José Older is the author of the Shadowshaper series. His latest book, “Dactyl Hill Squad,” will be published next month.

Book review: The Lost Boys by Gina Perry – the experiment that made boys vicious

In 1954 the American psychologist Muzafer Sherif set out to prove that hate was learned with the help of two groups of warring 11-year-olds.

Warring tribes … the 1990 film adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Photo: Allstar/Cinetext/COLUMBIA

At the beginning of the 1950s, while William Golding was a teacher at a boys’ school in Salisbury, he took a group of pupils to the nearby iron age hill fort of Figsbury Ring. The novelist told some of the boys to attack the fort while others defended its grassy ramparts. Golding was shocked at how quickly the schoolboys morphed into ferocious warring tribes: “My eyes came out like organ stops as I watched what was happening.”

Golding’s research into “the nature of small boys” was for his novel, Lord of the Flies. It confirmed his pessimistic view that society’s problems could be traced back “to the defects in human nature”. At the same time in the US, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif was conducting very similar experiments involving groups of warring boys. Unlike the novelist, though, the scientist was an idealist. Rather than blaming human nature, he believed that environments created the conditions in which conflict and violence flourished. In short, he believed hate was learned.

Australian psychologist Gina Perry’s fascinating study shows that Muzafer Sherif’s methods were deeply flawed

Laudable though these aims were, Australian psychologist Gina Perry’s fascinating study shows that Sherif’s methods were deeply flawed. His most famous experiment involved two groups of 11-year-old boys brought together at a summer camp in 1954 at the Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. Although they were the “cream of the crop” in their communities, Sherif claimed that when exposed to a competitive environment they quickly degenerated into “disturbed, vicious … wicked youngsters”. Peace was restored by faking a rock fall that threatened the camp’s water supply, forcing the boys to cooperate.

Perry’s research raises questions about Sherif’s account of this seminal experiment, casting doubt on how it was conducted and the objectivity of the researchers. A previous experiment went badly wrong when the boys refused to fight. In 1954 everything was carefully stage managed and Perry suggests that the increasingly vicious atmosphere was stirred up by the psychologists. When contacted by Perry, the subjects she terms “the lost boys” were unaware that they were part of a psychological experiment and feel used. “It was a crazy situation run by crazy people,” one says. But Sherif’s assistant remains loyal: “We were fighting prejudice. Traumatised by experiences in his youth in Turkey, Sherif aimed to create a world in which “wounds were healed and what was lost was restored”. Ultimately, Perry, too, remains sympathetic to this temperamental but driven psychologist.

  • The Lost Boys by Gina Perry (Scribe Publications, £14.99). To order a copy for £12.74, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Book review: Brother by David Chariandy – a family on the edge of disaster

This is an exquisite Canadian novel about growing up in a poor immigrant neighbourhood of danger and futile dreams.


“You can always do things to let the world know you’re not nobody. You never know when your break is coming,” says older brother Francis, advising Michael to relax, to be less clueless, less of a pussy. But Francis learns early on that his break isn’t coming, that it is dangerous to hope. Narrated by the adult Michael, Canadian author David Chariandy’s tightly crafted, gracefully elegiac second novel alternates between present-day and early 1980s Scarborough, a hopeless Toronto neighbourhood – nicknamed Scarlem and Scarbistan and Scar-bro – of poor immigrants and their disenfranchised children. The book is a study of the cultural divide between the displaced and their offspring. The parents have “useless foreign degrees” framed on the walls of their corner shops, advertising “back home tastes” on hand-painted signs. Their feral children, “oiled creatures of mongoose cunning”, hang out in barbershops, mix music and watch The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard.

In the present day, Francis is gone and Michael is left to care for their mother alone. When Aisha, Michael’s studious childhood girlfriend and now a writer, returns to the neighbourhood, she forces mother and son to reckon with their “complicated grief” and memories of Francis.

Chariandy handles some of the most emotional issues of our time with care and wisdom

Michael and Francis’s mother is from Trinidad. During their childhood, she travels hours each day for cleaning shifts, her guilt as she locks her young boys in for the night manifesting in threats “mined from the deepest hells of history”. She warns them not to waste food, not to open the door, not to watch TV late at night. She knows they won’t listen, but she has to go, and her despairing rages become the heartbeat of the story. Her body is always on the brink of giving out, her breath stinking from a rotten tooth, and in her daily toil she exemplifies the fine line between survival and disaster. There is a moment, Michael understands, when “the limbs feel like meat, and it takes every last strength from a mother to make the two additional bus transfers home”. Through her pain and sweat and undying belief in “arrival and opportunity”, she forces her sons to try to live by the rules. “You all is harden,” she accuses in a melodic Trinidadian accent, warning them that despite what the world expects, no son of hers can ever become a “crimi-nal”.

In the novel’s most powerful childhood scene, just after someone is killed in a convenience store, the boys can’t sleep because they are afraid of “the black murderers”. Their mother tells them they are safe, begs them to believe it, but Francis refuses. “I don’t believe you,” he says, frantic, to which she replies: “But I need you to believe me.”

And it is with this foundational belief in her safety that her universe diverges from that of her sons. Here is their most fundamental culture clash: she is a woman with a country where she is wanted, far away though it may be, and while her striving may lead nowhere, it probably won’t get her murdered by police.

As they grow older, Michael begins to see what Francis sees. “One morning I peered with Francis into a newspaper box to read a headline about the latest terror and caught in the glass the reflection of our own faces.” Michael is prone to being socially awkward with the neighbourhood boys (“Yeah, homeboy is indubitably dope!”). Francis keeps him at arm’s length from the dangers and futile dreams that take shape in Desirea’s barbershop, a place where among the do-rags and sharp fades children of immigrants “found new language … kept the meanings close as skin”.

Francis and Mother share a quiet devotion and endless conflict that is unique to first-born children and single mothers. Her sadness is the subject of Chariandy’s most beautiful prose, from the casual way she explains her presence to overattentive sales people (“just window shopping”) to passages such as this:

Mother’s face seemed ready to break … Like watching a glass ball being dropped in a slow-motion movie. That fraction of a second just after the glass hits the ground and it’s still a ball, but the cracks are everywhere, and you know it’s not going to be a ball much longer.

Chariandy’s writing is accomplished and confident: every word hits its mark. Mother stops to “neat up” her dress. A gunshot victim leaks “a wet pink balloon” from his head. Thick Brylcreemed hair looks like “the black snap-on do of Lego-Man”. Michael searches for a clue in the “expressive space” between Francis’s mouth and nose. Chariandy handles some of the most emotional issues of our time – the casual indignities of being a poor child of immigrants, the impervious power-posturing of police in the black community, murders dismissed as lawful – with care and wisdom. The result is seething and persuasive.

Near the end of the novel, Mother takes her teenage boys for a walk. They watch tiny moths circle a plant near the creek. Michael describes them as torn pieces of an old book, “a scattered and wasted alphabet. Without any meaning at all.” But Mother retains her hope, useless as it may be. “Look closer,” she says. “Cup your hand and feel the proof of them against you. They’re not trash. They’re living things. And they’re flying.”

Brother is an exquisite novel, crafted by a writer as talented and precise as Junot Díaz and Dinaw Mengestu. It has a beating heart and a sharp tongue. It is elegant, vital, indubitably dope – the most moving book I’ve read in a year.

  • Dina Nayeri’s non-fiction book, The Ungrateful Refugee, will be published by Canongate next yearBrother by David Chariandy (Bloomsbury, £12.99). To order a copy for £9.59, saving over 25%, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.