The Blurb On The Back:
When Semira discovers a diary written by Hen, a girl living over one hundred years ago, she finds the friend she has been desperately seeking. A friend who reaches through time to bring not just comfort but inspiration to be brave, to fight for her place in the world, and maybe even to uncover the secrets of her own past …
Writing the diary changed one girl’s life. Reading it changes another’s.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
12-year-old Semira is a refugee from Eritrea. She lives with her mother and Robel (a man she’s been told to call step-father because he’s supposedly been helping them with their claim for asylum but who really just makes her mum work for little money). They constantly move from house to house, which Samira suspects is because Robel doesn’t want her or her mother to make friends and Robel doesn’t like it when they go out without him.
When Semira is sent out to buy second hand saucepans she finds an old crushed hat on a second-hand good stall, which has a bird she is sure she remembers from home. Against her better judgment, she buys it with the money that Robel gave her and finds that the hat comes with a hat box, at the bottom of which is hidden a diary written by 12-year-old Henrietta (or Hen) in 1891!
Reading Hen’s diary, Semira discovers how the girl was involved in the formation of the Society for the Protection of Birds but, more importantly, her relationship with her spirited aunt Kitty whose passion for the rights of animals is matched only by her determination to secure women’s rights, including the right to vote. Semira is inspired by their courage as she starts a new school and meets the unpopular Patrick, and even dreams of standing up to Robel …
Gill Lewis’s dual contemporary and historical novel for children aged 9+ is a beautifully judged affair that combines women’s rights, the treatment of refugees and animal rights in a well-balanced novel filled with courage and sadness and understanding and which is all the better for its bittersweet ending and the fact that it doesn’t offer pat solutions to difficult problems.
Lewis does particularly well at showing the difficult situation that Semira and her mother are in without over egging things. Although Robel is a little too caricature an antagonist, Lewis excels at showing the fear and anxiety that Semira’s mother feels given her dependency on him for money and lodging and how he exploits that, both physically by making her work for little money and emotionally by deliberately preventing her from learning English, which would help her realise how much he is exploiting her. I believed in Semira’s fury and impotence as she recognises what he’s doing and yet cannot seem to persuade her mother of the same and also in how conflicted she is about standing up to him when she knows how he will punish both her and her mother.
Hen’s story echoes this as Kitty opens her eyes to the possibilities denied to women (from riding a bike to how they’re treated in their day-to-day lives and denied even the vote). What makes this storyline particularly good though is how Lewis takes pains to show how Kitty’s views were considered extreme even among women who favoured taking action for other causes. I enjoyed how Hen’s love for her aunt leads her to challenge the conventions of Victorian society and challenge the complacent views of her social-climbing parents (who fear Kitty’s campaign for the birds because Hen’s father has a business stuffing them to put on hats). Although Hen’s mother is a little stereotypical in many ways (cruel and grasping), Lewis does give her some depth by showing her she is content to hide behind her husband because being independent frightens her even as it seems to shock her.
Semira and Patrick’s friendship is nicely handled and I like how Lewis weaves in the fact that Patrick has his own troubled background to contend with, which explains the empathy that he and his mother display to Semira and her mother. At the same time though, Lewis does not shy from showing the racism that Semira has to deal with and the impact that moving from school to school has on her (although I have to say that while her initial attitude to overachieving Holly and Chloe’s overture of friendship amused me, I wasn’t quite as convinced by the fact that they stuck by her – especially when it becomes obvious she is hanging out with Patrick who everyone else in the school seems to avoid due to his being bullied). Bicycles play a big part in both storylines and I enjoyed how Lewis shows the freedom that they give each character and how they also inspire each character to be brave.
Lewis makes the mature decision to not offer pat happy endings or solutions to the issues faced by either character, which I really admired. There’s a particularly devastating death that honestly took me aback (and which, if I’m being honest, I’m in two minds on – on the one hand it shows that you don’t always get the happy ending you deserve but the fact that it happens off page also felt like a bit of a cheat) and while Semira’s situation has improved at the end of the book, she and her mum still aren’t out of the woods even if they have hope.
All in all, I thought this was a sensitive, accomplished read that has a lot of layers for readers young and old to enjoy and I will definitely be checking out Lewis’s other work on the back of it.
THE CLOSEST THING TO FLYING was released in the United Kingdom on 7th February 2019. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.