Review Blog

Jan 07 2019

Between us by Clare Atkins

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Black Inc, 2018. ISBN 9781760640217
(Age: 14+) Highly recommended. KIN016 - this is Ana's number. She is an Iranian asylum-seeker brought from Nauru with her mother and 3 year old brother Arash to temporary detention in Darwin, because her mother is expecting a baby and is suffering from pre-eclampsia. Ana is haunted by the memories of something that happened to her in Iran, something she can't talk about, but coming to Darwin means that at last she can go to school, learn English and study her favourite subject, Science. And it is there that she meets Jono, the trouble-maker at the back of the class. Jono and his friends are bored with school and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. But his attention is caught by the nerdy girl with her head wrapped tightly in a scarf.
The story is told in the alternating voices of the three main characters: Ana, Jono and Jono's father Kenny, just starting as a security guard at the detention centre. The three voices are so real: Ana - fearful and uncertain but desperate to learn; Jono - rebellious, in conflict with his father, finding escape in heavy music and risk-taking; and Kenny - struggling as a single parent, not knowing how to handle his son, and suspicious of the motives of the young detainee.
It is a beautifully written book, the voice of Jono initially written in verse, and that of Ana in prose, but then this is reversed as their interests change and develop. Eventually as the pace builds, a sentence begun by one will be finished by the other as each picks up the story.
Atkins vividly brings to life the world of the teenagers - the uncertainty and doubt, the budding friendship, the mistakes and misunderstandings. Ana and Jono's romance is threatened in so many ways. The tension in the relationship between Ana, Jono and Kenny gradually builds to an explosive crisis point . . .
Atkins has obviously researched the world of the detention camp: the traumatised asylum seekers, separated from family, always in fear of jeopardising their refugee application, and the hardening attitude and indifference of the guards as they enforce cruel and meaningless rules. Newbie guards either harden or break. Kenny is afraid of which way he will go.
The book gives a fictional expression to the experience of cruelty and hopelessness described in the non-fiction No man is an island (2016) by Adele Dumont, about her time as an English language tutor at Curtin detention centre in Western Australia. In fact students could compare the two books for a transformation task, picking up on the minor character of the naive caseworker Eliza in Between us and consider the story from her perspective, as a worker in the detention centre.
Between us is a truly gripping story, the voices draw you in, and then the pace builds so that it is impossible to put down. I read this in one sitting and was left reeling at the end. It is such a powerful story, extremely well written, the people and situations are so authentic, you know as a reader that while Ana, Jono and Kenny are fictional, their story reflects real people and real situations.
Helen Eddy

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