Let's go swimming on Doomsday by Natalie C. Anderson

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Absolutely riveting! This is another gripping thriller by Natalie C. Anderson. If you enjoyed her previous novel City of saints and thieves, let me tell you, this one is even better. It is set in Somalia and is a story of the manipulation and exploitation of child soldiers by a ruthless extremist group. Abdi is a young boy caught in the notorious 'Hole' prison and coerced by American agents into infiltrating the Al Shebaab rebel militia group, in order to save the lives of his family. Despite the remembered warning by his father 'Don’t trust guys with guns', Abdi has no choice but to follow the path of his kidnapped elder brother Dahir, to infiltrate the ranks of Al Shebaab and betray their plans in exchange for his family’s freedom.

The story is told in two interleaving time frames until the past catches up and overtakes the present. It vividly conveys the inner conflict of boy soldiers who know that killing is wrong but who, for a variety of reasons, are drawn to the teachings of the 'Doctor' and the 'General'. Abdi himself is drawn into the daily rigours of military training, developing his physical skills and strategic thinking, working as a team with his troupe of fellow boy soldiers. And while the General is harsh, the Doctor lulls him with talk of holy mission. It seems a very realistic portrayal of the kind of mind manipulation that extremist groups use, and has a parallel in this story with deviant religious cults in America.

Anderson is the first to admit that her novel could be criticised for not being an authentic 'Own Voice', in the vein of books like Prize fighter the story of a Congolese boy soldier, but it is based on her long experience working with NGOs and the UN on refugee relief and development in Africa and draws on the many refugee stories she has heard. It is a believable portrayal of the brutality of fanatical militant groups and the crimes they perpetuate against men, women and children, told from the viewpoint of a teenage boy who has to find his own inner strength and work out what is right.

One of the interesting aspects of Anderson's novel is that there is good and evil on both sides; there are friendship bonds within the child soldier group and some of the values Abdi learns from the Doctor are good, whilst on the other side, many of the actions of the American organisation seem just as callous and ruthless as Al Shebaab. Abdi has to work out for himself what is the right thing to do. That makes for lots to think about and discuss after reading this novel!

Themes: Child soldiers, Morals and ethics, Survivor guilt, Cults, Brainwashing.

Helen Eddy