Clare Atkins, Between Us, Black Inc., 29 Jan 2018, 275pp., $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760640217
This is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story but it is not the Montagues and the Capulets keeping the young lovers apart, it is the Australian Government’s border protection policy. Anahita (Ana) and Jono meet at school, but they are not like ordinary teenagers as their lives are so very different. Jono is the son of a Vietnamese ‘boat person’, whose mother has left him and his father, and Ana is a Muslim girl held at an internment camp outside Darwin. Ana who misses her father, killed in the violence in Iran, lives in the camp with her mother, little brother and the baby sister born in the camp. Ana is very clever, with such a lot to offer, but is eventually unable even to finish her schooling in Darwin. She is subject to crippling fear and to self-harm as a result of the violence she has both witnessed and endured.
It is a powerful story told from multiple points-of-view. There is Jono, the son of Kenny, one of the guards at the refugee internment camp, Ana and Kenny himself. Each of the narrators tells their story in the first-person, a device which allows the reader to be privy to their thoughts, fears and motives, many of which they are reluctant to reveal to others. In fact, we understand things better than the characters – and those around them – do themselves. There are misunderstandings which lead to anger, resentment and incorrect actions. Each of the characters tells their story in the first-person and, at times, Ana and Jono tell theirs in a kind of free verse.
The characterisation is nuanced and most characters are shown to have both a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side although one of the guards is portrayed as completely lacking in both empathy and cultural understanding. Unfortunately he is one who influences Kenny in many ways, leading to a number of actions which drive the plot. Some of the dialogue between the guards suggests they are very ready to carry out racial and cultural profiling, a practice which is shown to lead to a lack of understanding of the refugees in the camp.
This is a powerful and highly political book which is highlighted by its focusing on one refugee family and their plight. The ending is immensely sad but also sadly inevitable. There could be no future for Jono and Ana as Ana and her family are moved from the camp to Sydney, into a dilapidated house. Ana sounds a note of hope though as she remarks on the fact that the family are still all together. The damage done to them all is clear, ‘scared and scarred’ as Ana remarks about her little brother. She continues her schooling and we can only hope that there is a future for her.
Reviewed by Margot Hillel