Fiction – print. Peirene Press, 2016. 160 pgs. Purchased.
The English Channel may separate the two countries, but the city of Calais has become a border town between France and Great Britain. Migrants and refugees hoping to settle in Britain have flocked to the French side of the Chunnel, building a community known as “The Jungle”.
The eight short stories included in this collection by Popoola and Holmes are largely set in “The Jungle” and feature the voices of refugees longing to settle in Britain and the French and British people who encounter them. The thread tying all eight short stories together is trust and how suspicion impedes it.
In “Counting Down”, a migrant who wants to be known by the name “Obama” counts down the minutes until he can slip through the fence and make his way towards England. He must trust that “Calculate”, another migrant, knows his timetables and knows when it is safe for them to run. In “The Terrier”, a women being paid by the council to house young adults — the same young adults whose presence has chased away the tourists — wonders if they are lying to her and, therefore, the government about their ages.
In “Paradise”, Marjorie serves as a volunteer in The Jungle despite her brother’s dismissal of its inhabitants, but she comes to regret that decision when her niece, Julie, grows to close to one of the male refugees. The fracturing of that trust turns her against the plight of the refugees in Calais. And, in “Ghosts”, a male immigrant wonders if he made the right choice as he watches women be forced into prostitution by the gang, as he realizes he’s stopped trusting the gang’s leader to keep him safe.
“It’s a more powerful weapon than violence, I can see that. Better than hitting them — make sure they trust no one else. I trust no one else. I used to trust him but he’s weakening. Now I trust only myself.” (pg. 99)
Trust between individuals, of course, serves as a foundation for how the French and British people view the people living in The Jungle and the current refugee crisis. If people like Marjorie or the woman in “The Terrier” start to see the individual migrants they have encountered as cheats and liars and threats, then they will view all those living in The Jungle as such. And their attitudes will rub off on those around them until the politicians decide to turn their backs on the crisis rather than lend a hand.
It is this micro to macro message — the understanding of an individual’s impact on the larger political will — that makes this collection a superbly fitting launch for Peirene Press’ Peirene Now! series. The stream of refugees may have slowed in the two years since the book’s publication yet the political crisis of fear remains, making this collection all the more relevant to readers today.
As I was writing up my thoughts, I noticed that the copyright page lists which author wrote which story. I found the short stories to be well tied together despite having two authors; I couldn’t identify which four stories belonged to the same author without the copyright page’s assistance.
It was interesting to note, though, that three of the four I mentioned here were by Holmes, but I wouldn’t want that fact to sway people into believing I preferred one author over the other. In fact, I would be remiss if I didn’t mentioned Popoola’s ‘Extending a Hand’, which was the story that I found to be the most compelling. In this second person narrative, the reader is the friend of a young woman named Mariam and is forced to contemplate sex work in order to help Mariam’s ill mother.
This is my third book for #20BooksofSummer. In October 2016, I contributed to the Peirene Press Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of ‘The Cut’ by Anthony Cartwright. My level of financial backing meant I was also sent a copy of this book.