The Blurb On The Back:
The boat sways and rocks.
Bodies pressed against bodies.
Holding on for our lives.
Natalie’s world is falling apart. She’s just lost her mum, and her brother marches the streets of Dover with a far-right gang. Swimming is her only refuge.
Sammy has fled his home and family in Eritrea for the chance of a new life in Europe. Every step he takes is a step into an unknown and unwelcoming future.
A twist of fate brings them together and gives them both hope.
But is hope enough to mend a broken world?
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
16-year-old Natalie “Nat” Lennon lives in Dover with her dad and 18-year-old brother Ryan. The family are grief-stricken following the death of Natalie’s mother (who worked supporting refugees) from an aggressive form of cancer. Unable to find regular work, Natalie’s dad is forced to navigate the complicated UK benefits system as he struggles to pay the bills while Ryan is stuck on a zero hours contract. Like her mum, Natalie was a talented and keen swimmer who had a chance to turn professional. Her mum used to support her by taking her training and keeping her motivated, but since her death Natalie’s given up and lost a swimming scholarship as a result. Now she can barely even make it into school some days and although her girlfriend, Mel, is supportive and considerate, Natalie can’t help but feel jealous at the fact that Mel still has a mum who loves her and her family is very well off compared to hers.
18-year-old Samuel “Sammy” Jabir lives with his mother and sister Sophia in Eritrea. The country is under single party, authoritarian control. There are no free newspapers, no opposition and teenagers are routinely conscripted into the army where they are tortured and treated as slaves for as long as the military wants them. Sammy’s father – a journalist – was murdered by the military for the stories he wrote about the regime. Now that same military have taken Sophia to the Sawa training camp and want to conscript Sammy too. Sammy knows that he’ll never survive if he goes so he and his best friend Tesfay Solomon raise $1000, buy forged papers and head for the border with Sudan with a plan to then go on to Europe and Britain, where Sammy has relatives.
While Sammy and Tesfay make their dangerous journey, Natalie realises that Ryan is becoming involved with the English Defence League, a far-right, racist organisation that’s protesting in Dover against refugees and immigrants. When Fazel (a student in Nat’s class who’s also a refugee) is viciously beaten in a racist attack, Nat reads more about the plight of refugees and decides that she wants to do something to help them by swimming the Channel to raise money. But even as she trains, her fears that Ryan is falling deeper into hatred slowly morph into fears as to what he is doing to further it.
Nat and Sammy find their fates entwined in a way that gives each hope even as the odds against them have never been higher …
Manjeet Mann’s YA novel pitches the plight of refugees against increasing anti-refugee sentiment within the UK. It’s told in verse and very well written with Mann effortlessly switching between Sammy and Nat to emphasise their common experiences and emotions. Sammy’s experiences make it a difficult read at times while Mann shows why people are attracted to racism without excusing it. This will be on the 2021 awards lists and it deserves to be.
I’m going to say straight up that I am not normally drawn to novels told in verse – partly because when they’re done badly, it’s just painful, but also because they can be very gimmicky. However this book is an example of verse narrative being done really well. Mann pulls off the difficult feat of giving her two main characters distinctive voices and then allowing them to tell their own stories. There are some graphical tricks used to achieve this, e.g. bold text at the end of sections and beginning of sections to show the transition between Nat and Sammy and repetition of lines between sections to show the connection. The verse format means that Mann has to use a pared down style to get the emotion and descriptions across but it is amazing how much she packs in. It’s clever, it flows very well and it kept me turning the pages.
Mann makes clear who Sammy and Nat are and what each is going through. In Nat’s case, the pain is primarily emotional as she struggles to process the grief of her mum’s death but also her helplessness at what that death has done to her dad and her brother and how everyone is pulling away from each other. None of this is helped by their precarious financial position thanks to the lack of decent paid work or the fact that their landlord has decided to kick them out of the home they’ve lived in for most of Nat’s life. It gives the scenes where Nat’s dad offers to train her for the Channel swim more poignancy, not least because Mann makes explicit how much of a purpose it gives him while bringing them close together, even as Ryan pulls away more and more.
Also well done are the scenes between Nat and Mel. Mann does well in showing how complicated Nat’s emotions are – her inability to express how she feels or what she’s going through as she tries to process her grief, her feelings of inadequacy given Mel’s outgoing nature, confidence and popularity and her envy at everything that Mel has, which in turn feeds into Nat’s guilt that she feels that way. Guilt also feeds into her interactions with Fazel, fed by her nagging worry that Ryan was involved and although the Fazel and Nat scenes are probably the thinnest in the book, I appreciated the fact that Mann makes sure Fazel makes clear he doesn’t need her to be his white saviour. If I am going to nitpick, I’d say that I would have liked a bit more in the scenes between Ryan and Nat, especially towards the end when she and her dad make a critical decision because the emotional fall out, and notably Ryan’s reaction to the consequences, did not ring quite true given everything he has done before.
That said, Mann does a very good job of showing the mix of desperation and frustration that makes racist groups like the EDL and how such groups cynically use the people who come to them and abandon them just as quickly. Indeed, the scenes where she shows Nat’s dad’s frustrations at trying to use the benefits system and find a new home for them are very moving, even as the scenes where they go to check out a proposed new development and realise that there’s nothing there for them are heartbreaking.
In contrast Sammy’s journey is a harrowing read. Mann does not sugar coat the situation that people face in Eritrea or the dangers, brutality and exploitation that refugees face. There’s a slightly disjointed element to the journey with Sammy and Tesfay going from dangerous, awful situation to dangerous awful situation, sometimes making friends but mostly being exploited by men who view them as a commodity there to make money from and who literally don’t care if they live or die. There are some really difficult scenes to read here, for me the hardest being those in the detention and processing centres – and it’s all the harder because of Sammy’s determination and spirit, which keeps him going on as he tries to get to Britain.
There’s a touch of magical realism to the connection between Nat and Sammy, which I didn’t mind in the context of the novel because the way Mann links them emotionally makes it hang together well. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but suffice to say that I very much admire the way Mann brings the story to a close and the choices she makes in it. I think it’s something that will very much stay with the reader for a long time afterwards. I won’t be surprised to see this on the awards lists during 2021 and, frankly, it deserves to be there and is worth a few hours of your time.
THE CROSSING was released in the United Kingdom on 3rd June 2021. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.