Tristan Bancks, Detention, Puffin Books, July 2019 240 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9780143791799
This is a highly political book which questions commonly-held assumptions about asylum seekers. It asks the reader to think about the essential humanity of those seeking refuge and challenges notions of ‘othering’.
On the way to school one day, Dan, a rather disadvantaged child who is often left alone in the trailer home he shares with his mother, sees a stray dog tied up by the side of the road. At some risk to himself, both from the traffic and the frightened and therefore aggressive dog, he rescues the animal and takes it to school. Right from the beginning of the book, therefore, Dan is constructed as someone who is compassionate, thoughtful and who will care for ‘strays’. At the beginning, however, he is also shown to be someone who acts on impulse and doesn’t always think through the consequences of his actions. How is he going to look after the dog, for example. However, as the novel progresses and he is faced with more and more decisions, he learns, quite quickly, to plan ahead.
These characteristics come into play when he finds a frightened young refugee girl in the school toilet block. She has escaped, with a number of others, from the nearby detention centre but has been separated from her family. She remembered her father had said to run no matter what and that is what she has done. She hopes to be able to get to Leeton where she thinks her family will have gone to join an uncle living there. After he finds Sima, Dan helps her get out of the toilet block, a task made doubly difficult when the school goes into lockdown because of the escape from the centre. Dan hardly knows who to trust and he feels he has made the wrong decision when he tells his teacher, someone he thinks will be sympathetic to Sima’s plight. Ultimately, they get Sima on a bus but some time later, Dan discovers she was removed from the bus and taken back to the centre to join her parents who had also been captured. The ending might perhaps be seen as a little too hopeful as Sima and the other women and children in the camp (and ultimately, it seems, the men) are released on temporary protection visas. Sima is able to travel to Leeton with her mother and there enjoys the freedom of wide-open spaces and safety. For many asylum seekers in Australia today, this is not the ending they will have but, in the context of this book, it’s a just reward for Dan and Sima’s courage and resilience.
This is a fast-paced novel, with the narrative set out chronologically, mostly over one day. Chapter headings are times of the day, marking the development of the action. We hear from both Dan and Sima as the focalisation changes between the two. Both of them have to deal with issues of loyalty, courage, relationships, family and trust. The reader too, is asked to consider these matters.
Upper primary/early secondary
Reviewed by Margot Hillel