Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2017

Hinterland, by Caroline Brothers

I stumbled on this book quite by accident when I was checking Goodreads to see if Steven Lang’s new book Hinterland was there, and discovered this one with the same title, by Australian journalist Caroline Brothers, who is living and working in the UK and Europe.

Hinterland is a remarkable book.  This story of two brothers on an odyssey across Europe to find a home in the UK where they have human rights pulls at the heart strings, all the more so because it is based on an awful truth.  Of the hordes of refugees descending on Europe and the UK, hundreds are unaccompanied minors.  In the back of the book where she tells of the genesis of the book, Caroline Brothers explains how her characters Kabir aged eight, and Aryan aged fourteen, are a composite of children she has met and who told her their stories.

The story begins as the boys cross a river into Europe on a journey that began in Afghanistan.  Escaping the Taliban, they have made their way through Iran and Turkey, and are now at the unwelcoming border into Greece.  They have nothing but the two layers of clothing on their backs, clothing which is needed for the nights when they have to sleep out in the open.  This odyssey means that they are often unimaginably cold, hungry and dirty, and always terrified of being caught and sent back.  What keeps them going is the mantra that Ayran has taught Kabir: Kabul-Tehran-Istanbul-Athens-Rome-Paris-London, places that have been memorised as the pathway to a new life.

The characterisation is very good.  Most of the story is narrated through the perspective of Aryan, making the reader aware of his doubts and fears, his protectiveness towards Kabir, and his occasional irritation with his little brother and the overwhelming responsibility he has to bear.  It is Aryan who has to take the initiative when they arrive somewhere new and encounter unexpected difficulties.  It is he who must decide who to trust and who to fear.  He doesn’t always get that right, and Kabir doesn’t always listen, and some terrible things happen when the adults they encounter are exploitative and cruel.

The author captures the reality of a Europe that we mostly never see in economical prose and a poetic sensibility:

‘This is where I leave you,’ the boy says.  He wears a Turkish evil eye symbol on a leather cord around his neck and rarely meets their gaze.  With his one dextrous hand, he lights a cigarette and the molten tip of it burns a hole in the icy air.

‘Make for that tall tree – can you see it? – just before the river bends,’ the boy says in halting English.  Aryan thinks they must be almost the same age. He follows the boy’s finger; he can just make out the skeleton of an oak in the residue of light.

‘When you get there, cut the [inflatable] boat like this.’  He makes slashing movements with a pocket knife in the air.  ‘Turn it over and sink it.  Then if they find you, they can’t send you back.

‘After that you climb the embankment to the road.  When you get to the wall, keep low.  Wait till you hear the truck stop.  You must not speak.  Come out only when the driver gives the word.’

With his good hand, the boy undoes the rope that ties the first to the second boat and ushers them aboard.

‘How long till the truck comes by?’ somebody asks.

The boy shrugs.  ‘Just wait till it comes,’ he says.  His features are gaunt in the darkness that settles on their skin like ash.  ‘I go now.  Remember, if you get caught, you have never seen me.  If you get sent back, we’ll take you across again.’ (p. 7)

For those of us who have travelled across Europe by intercity train, the journey of these two children is all the more extraordinary.  The idea of children dealing with the seething crowds, the indifferent ticket sellers, the confusion of platforms and signs – all in languages these kids don’t speak – is difficult to imagine and yet this is the reality, complicated further by the ever-present fear of capture by the authorities.   This story is derived from the true stories of unaccompanied minors who traverse a universe that is at best indifferent to them, but is more often hostile and pragmatic.  Few people in this story take pity on these kids, and the authorities never do, seeing them merely as a problem that needs to be removed further back to where they came from.  Shockingly, the violence of tear gas and truncheons is sometimes used in official efforts to get rid of the unofficial ‘camps’ that spring up in parks and deserted areas near staging points in the journey.

This is an important book, with an ending that will haunt all but the most heartless.

Author: Caroline Brothers
Title: Hinterland
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2011
ISBN: 9781408830352
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Hinterland


Responses

  1. It sounds interesting, Lisa. These perilous journeys are horrifying for adults to make let alone unaccompanied children. And yet the callous UK government has agreed to only help a handful of these minors and I won’t mention the appalling headlines in a certain tabloid hate rag that said these minors were rorting the system and needed to be deported. My heart weeps.

    • The only effective long term solution is for the international community to get its act together and make these dangerous homelands safe. Back home is where most refugees would rather be anyway.
      But in the meantime it beggars belief that kids are sent back where they came from. There should be reception centres throughout the EU with schools and medical care etc while homes are found for these kids…
      And as for Australia… *hangs head in shame*

  2. LOVED this book and it’s shocking that 6 years after publication it’s still so timely. When I read the title of Steven Lang’s latest novel, I immediately remembered this one and wondered whether he knew of it. Strange that titles are not subject to copyright, but perhaps – as with you, Lisa – it brings Caroline Brothers’s book some new readers!

    • Hi Annette, I was excited to discover this author and I will be looking out for her other books. So often it is journalists who are at the coal face of social issues and if they have the gift of writing as Brothers has, a novel with the power to influence readers can be the result. (And we may see more of them as journalists have to diversify what they do because of newspaper downsizing).
      LOL Titles and copyright… I remember when I wrote my little book about Indonesia for school students, I wanted to call it Adventures in Indonesia but was overridden by the publisher and it ended up with the not very enticing title of, you guessed it, Indonesia. The same as the then authoritative adult book by Bruce Grant. I was so embarrassed!

      • Good point about journalists possibly going into fiction writing as work becomes precarious… Of course, Paul Daley, Chris Uhlmann and others are some who’ve already done so.
        Gosh, there must be so many books out there with the title ‘Indonesia’ – seems wrong-headed by the publisher, but I guess they’ll always have the upper hand…

        • Ah well, it did sell well! It went into a reprint, and I still get payments for it through ELR:)


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