by Andy Mulligan (David Fickling Books, 2010)
I really, really wanted to like this novel. I'd heard such good things! I was expecting a heart-warming adventure story about three poverty-stricken boys living a tough life, who band together when they find something unexpected in the trash they comb through every day, and use this discovery to change their fortunes. The ironic thing is, writing that synopsis, that's exactly what DID happen in the book - and yet somehow it didn't hit the spot for me at all.
Raphael, Gardo and Rat live in Behala, in a shanty town built on their city's rubbish dump. Each and every day they go out and trawl the heaps of new trash, painstakingly separating out paper, plastic and glass, which they can sell on, from the swathes of human waste and rotting food. Then one day, Raphael and Gardo find a mysterious bag, containing an ID card, a note in code, a letter to a local prison inmate, a photograph of a little girl, a key and a wad of money. When the police descend on their homes they realise they've found something very important, and set out on a journey of discovery that will take them right into the heart of the corruption and brutality they've fought to escape their whole lives.
I think most of the problem for me was in the narrative rather than the plot. My first issue was that I didn't know where the novel was set - the Philippines, apparently - until I read Mulligan's 'Author Note' at the end of the book. This made it harder to imagine the setting and know what kind of voice to give to the children as I was reading - which might sound silly, but it really impeded my ability to picture the characters fully and thus 'get to know them' properly. The narrative skips between characters, each 'writing' their share of the story. Rat, Gardo and Raph each tell certain parts, and others are passed over to Father Juilliard, the headmaster of the Mission School in Behala, and Sister Olivia, a young English volunteer. I found that these adult voices helped clarify a few things in my mind, which was good, and Rat's voice was particularly endearing in its odd mixture of premature wisdom and childlike innocence. Horrific anecdotes of authority violence and the realities of life on the trash mountains are casually dropped into the boys' narrative in a way that really drives home the fear and poverty that overshadow their lives, but at the same time, I never felt like I really knew them, or saw the extent of their plight from a perspective that would allow me to really feel for them. Olivia's sections were the closest I came to understanding their world from that compassionate viewpoint.
And that, in a nutshell, was what really stopped me investing in the book. Although I was shocked by the violent undertones of life for these youngsters, I didn't care enough, somehow. There was just something in the style and tone that left me feeling rather divorced from the whole thing. The narrative changes were muddled and didn't allow me to invest in any one character, or really feel the relationship between the three boys deeply enough. Rather frustratingly, I alternated between being completely confused as to what was happening, and being one step ahead of them in their quest to work out the mystery, thus completely dissolving any suspense I should have felt as the adventure progressed. The underlying politics of the situation were never properly explained, and the ending felt very rushed - though I admit, I had a few tears in my eyes when I read the trio's little epilogue.
All in all, I was just disappointed. Disappointed that the author didn't make more of his unique characters and unusual setting; disappointed that the 'eye-opening' politics and corruption weren't clarified in a way that provoked real thought and concern; disappointed that I didn't connect with these three courageous little characters and their efforts to set right a terrible injustice. Oh well. I guess you can't win 'em all...
|Children fighting to survive on a real-life trash pile in Cambodia|