This is a tough novel. The main character, Theo, is a survivor; not only of Rwanda’s genocide and his particular experience of it, but of life in Dublin. This book describes life in the raw, the underbelly of Dublin life, of life in any city, and the things that people do to survive it. Theo’s technique is honesty, as he knows that his foster family did their loving, struggling best to put him back together after his tearful arrival at seven years old. They keep in contact, enquire about what he is doing, try to keep him in their lives. Theo knows that in many ways he has succeeded in surviving, getting this far, getting a degree that fate has decided is not really worth much. He knows that he could have done better, that there have been and are people who care. To survive he must keep his wits about him, see people for what they really are, think about the possibilities of what those he encounters are capable, and incapable, of doing in this life. A life of interconnections and the support that can be negative as well as positive.
The book opens with an incident from which Theo must escape, lie low, disappear. We follow his journey as a reflection of the earlier journey from his first life. Fear, in this novel, can take many forms.
The other person involved in this mysterious incident is Deirdre. Older if not wiser than Theo, she lives a life of fear and regret as her husband’s brutality makes her question everything she has done, everything she is in life. She has teenage children, with their own problems and agendas, a child who she can see is beginning to outgrow the capacity for simple love. Her job, her life, is a sad one, where she knows that a fresh start is the only real cure, but she is stuck. Her family and friends are as interconnected as Dublin life can be, and like Theo, she is in fear.
This novel on first sight seems as if there will be little light, little hope, but it is there in the portrait of people who are not one dimensional, not easy to categorise. Theo has Precious, the sympathetic girl who can bear the nightmares, even if she gets annoyed with Theo at times. Grace is the daughter with her good and bad impulses, the reason that Deirdre continues, wants the dream of life as it could be. This is a book of the tiny details of people that make up life; the understanding teacher, the unlikely love of poetry, the fighting spirit of women whose lives have not fulfilled their early dreams. It is a hard book in many ways, yet Chonghaile is a clever enough writer, a sophisticated observer, to keep the book moving forward while revealing backstories that could be depressing, in small pieces. It is undoubtedly a clever novel, a novel that explains much while keeping forward momentum. It is a book that I was glad to receive to review, as I believe it is an important contribution to begin understanding of refugees in many settings.