Seven years have passed since Gulwali Passarlay’sThe Lightless Sky memorably documented his experience as an Afghani child refugee forced, after the killing of his father, to flee thousands of miles across hostile lands and seas in search of a fear-free life. His year-long journey, which began with being smuggled into Iran, and included time in prison, a crossing of the Mediterranean in a tiny boat and a bleak period in a Calais camp ended with a triumphant Hollywood-style freeze-frame; after being fostered in the UK, Passarlay graduated with a politics degree from Manchester University, and was chosen to carry the Olympic torch in 2012.
Since that landmark book, the contemporary child refugee’s journey, from war or threat to asylum or a new threat, has been portrayed many times. (For anyone looking to introduce the stories of displaced people to young readers, I recommend terrific graphic novels The Arrival by Shaun Tan and David Ouimet’s I Get Loud.) Some tales do not end as well as Passerlay’s (though, oddly, none I’m aware of conclude that it would be best to send asylum seekers back to where they came from). But there is always relief in knowing that autobiographies are at least proof of survival.
A new standout is Javier Zamora’s Solito, a beguiling personal memoir which is so effortlessly evocative of time and place, so light in its unexpected humour and convincing in its characterisation, it reads like a novel written by a master of imaginative and empathetic fiction. Zamora was nine years old when he began a torturous 3,000-mile, seven-week voyage from El Salvador through Central America before arriving in Tucson “la USA”. It’s a harrowing true story, but Zamora is such a skilled writer that he is able to avoid didacticism or self-pity; instead he fills his pages with lively dialogue, rich description, and the dreams and despairs of the endearing young Javier.
Javier is a refugee, but he is also hopeful, scared, curious little ‘Javiercito’, who can’t wait to get to America to eat popcorn, make snowballs and savour the lipsticked forehead kiss of his long-departed mother again. I fell for him completely, willing him on, praying for a happy ending. He is such a delightful companion I would gladly have spent another 360 pages with him, and I have high hopes for a sequel which tells us what happened next.
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