The Summer Stance by Lorn MacIntyre
As a young adult, his visits continue, in the pauses between his apprenticeship as a mechanic, courting his cousin and befriending a family of Kosovan refugees. When it’s discovered that his grandmother, now blind, has developed a tumour, and she refuses to see a doctor, Dòmhnall persuades his family to drive her in a convoy of battered caravans to the riverside spot where the clan had gathered every summer for years.
It’s an idyllic place, a wildlife haven and swimming spot for otters, where they’re welcomed warmly by the landowner who, in the past, has valued their contribution to the farm. But now his son’s in charge and he has modernisation in mind. There are plans for a hydroelectric plant which, although small-scale, will devastate the landscape. He’s determined the campers must leave.
Dòmhnall’s equally determined they’ll stay, at least for his grandmother to spend her final days in peace. Stand by for a clash of cultures, but it’s not a straightforward battle between oppressors and oppressed. Dòmhnall perceives the arrival of a busload of new-age Travellers as an interference rather than reinforcements, while he finds an ally in Marion, an Australian farmer from down the glen, who detects parallels with the persecution of the aboriginal people in her own homeland.
Subjected to police heavy-handedness, the travellers retaliate, but, as the violence escalates, ructions develop within the group. When most of Dòmhnall’s relatives argue for a return to the city, he draws closer to Marion, neglecting his wife who, it gradually becomes clear, has her own troubles of which her addiction to shoplifting is a symptom, not cause.
The Summer Stance is a fascinating insight into a much-misunderstood British minority and a nuanced study of the tensions between conservation and development, not only of landscape, but of language and culture, which we see replicated around the world. I have some reservations about the style, with exposition-heavy dialogue in places and a surfeit of synonyms for the much simpler said, but nevertheless feel enriched by the story. Thanks to small independent press Thunderpoint for my review copy.
Travellers by Helon Habila
Mark, a film student, has shed his previous identity along with his family in Malawi, but his love of Berlin and distraction from his studies put his legal status at risk. Manu, a Libyan doctor now working as a nightclub bouncer, spends every Sunday with his daughter at Checkpoint Charlie, hoping to be reunited with the wife and son from whom they became separated during the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean in an overladen boat. Portia, a Zambian student, is the daughter of a dissident poet who seemingly preferred exile with accolades to family life in a country once volatile but now at peace.
Then there’s Karim, once a comfortable shopkeeper in Mogadishu, who has journeyed through Yemen, Syria, Turkey and Bulgaria with his family since a warlord took a fancy to his eleven-year-old daughter, only to find his family divided and his eldest son seduced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In southern Italy, a woman washed ashore with her tiny son remembers nothing of her former life, not even her name, until married to a local man who takes her in. Finally, we meet Juma, an asylum seeker hiding from immigration officials in London high-rise, during Britain’s intentionally hostile environment to immigrants which saw many deported while their cases were still under review.
We meet the characters mostly through the narrator, either gradually as he gets to know them or when they explicitly choose to tell stories to him, and some we meet third-hand while others get to address us directly. Some of the stories overlap, and some merge with the narrator’s own as he’s affected by what he hears. When he picks up the wrong bag on leaving a train, he becomes embroiled in the migration narrative in a manner he would never have imagined.
All these stories are engrossing and poignant as you follow them but, unlike more conventional novels, you – by which I mean I – don’t have a strong sense of where you’ve been on reaching the end. Although others might word it differently, I imagine that’s partly the intention: the experience of migration to Europe from Africa is as variable as the individuals who make that journey, and the welcome or otherwise they receive along the way. An important and timely book, thanks to Hamish Hamilton for my review copy.
I’ve explored migrant identity a little in my short story collection, Becoming Someone. In one story, those with the luxury of being born in the West don’t realise their well-liked work colleague is at risk of deportation. In another, refugee parents are shocked by their British-born teenage daughter’s disconnection from the persecution that brought them to seek asylum.
One of the themes explored in this novel is the point at which character-building challenge becomes persecution and the popular myth that what doesn’t kill us makes us strong. With this week’s 99-word story, I’ve gone back to the refugee narrative to revisit this theme in response to the prompt “true grit”.
“Go home!” they hissed, when she left the high-rise, dragging a child by each hand. Did her headscarf offend them, or the coffee tint of her skin? Those who were kind were equally confusing, saying, “It takes true grit to survive as you have.” Checking the words in the dictionary in the refugee centre, they clashed with the nightmare in her head.
Miles of mountain, miles of sand, a boat so overladen it was bound to capsize. Robbed of her dollars, fearful of rape, grit was the stone in her shoe that plagued her every step of the way.