By Clare AtkinsYoung Adult Black Inc. Books
From the award-winning author of Nona & Me comes a stunning new novel about two teenagers separated by cultural differences, their parents’ expectations and twenty kilometres of barbed-wire fence.
Is it possible for two very different teenagers to fall in love despite high barbed-wire fences and a political wilderness between them?
Anahita is passionate, curious and determined. She is also an Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school. On weekdays, during school hours, she can be a ‘regular Australian girl’.
Jono needs the distraction of an infatuation. In the past year his mum has walked out, he’s been dumped and his sister has moved away. Lost and depressed, Jono feels as if he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese single father, Kenny.
Kenny is struggling to work out the rules in his new job; he recently started work as a guard at the Wickham Point Detention Centre. He tells Anahita to look out for Jono at school, but quickly comes to regret this, spiraling into suspicion and mistrust. Who is this girl, really? What is her story? Is she a genuine refugee or a queue jumper? As Jono and Anahita grow closer, Kenny starts snooping behind the scenes …
Between Us grapples with one of the most contentious elements of the contemporary Australian political landscape – asylum seeker policy and the treatment of refugees – and humanises it in the forms of Jono, the son of a Darwin detention centre guard, and Ana, an Iranian refugee who lives with her pregnant mother and young brother in the centre.
With alternating chapters in the voices of Jono, Ana and Jono’s increasingly unpredictable father, this is an adept and structurally accomplished novel that follows two teens forming a tentative romantic connection. Linguistic difference is sensitively portrayed through the contrast in Ana’s written and spoken voices. Sparse, verse-like chapters indicate Jono’s initial depressed state, a format that transfers to Ana as her family’s prospects deteriorate.
Between Us is an unflinching depiction of the high stakes of Australia’s asylum-seeker policies, delivered without voyeurism or shock tactics. It takes a compassionate path in examining ignorance and fear, and, despite the strong political spine of the story, the emphasis is always on the veracity of Jono and Ana’s experiences. It is a moving, thought-provoking and heartbreaking novel, but it retains crucial fragments of hope – namely in people, and the ability of their values to change and evolve when they are forced to reckon with each other as individuals.
I start again.
I lift my right foot off the ground, and place it on the lowest step of the bus. My nerves are an electric lightning storm inside me, fraught and fiery.
The officer waves for me to get on. Her voice cracks with impatience.‘Hurry up!’
I lift my other foot. Nothing happens.The officer doesn’t yell or grab me or shove me forwards.
I take another step, then one more. I’m up in the aisle now. Zahra beckons me towards her, but she’s already sitting next to Jamileh; there’s no room for me there.The boys are up the back of the bus – I can’t sit with them either. Zahra indicates the empty seat in front of her, and I slide into it, as another officer starts calling the roll. This one is short and Asian, with a clipped, singsong way of talking.
A muttered ‘yes’ and a shuffle from the back. ‘COR005.’
‘Yes.’ Zahra’s voice, bold and grinning behind me.
Silence. He tries again. ‘KIN016? Is that you?’ He’s looking at me.
I manage a small nod. The lightning flashes inside me again.
He ticks me off the list, hurries through the rest of the numbers, then turns to the bus driver.‘Good to go.’
The roller door in front of us screeches open, and the bus eases forwards. It stops just a few metres in front of where we were; there’s a second roller door blocking our way. The one behind us closes, and for a moment we are locked in a concrete void that is neither in nor out. My stomach churns.
Then the outer door clunks upwards and the bus lurches out onto the driveway. The Asian officer hurries to take a seat beside the female officer, just in front of me.
The bus slows at a boom gate.The final barrier is raised. Then we’re out on an empty road. Smooth black bitumen, painted with a carefully dotted white line straight down the middle. The land around us seems to stretch forever, an expanse of flat red earth. The trees on the roadside are stringy, with leaves like bursts of green fireworks erupting into the clear blue sky. So much green, so much space, and not a single person or building in sight. It’s the opposite of home.
We pass a section of blackened trees, burnt trunks standing like charred sentinels guarding the way to the city. Then we’re on a bridge zooming across a shimmering body of water.The ocean, vast and endless.The memory of terror grips me and twists my guts into a knot. I gasp.
The Asian officer turns to face me, misreading my panic. ‘First day?’
My nod is as small and fragile as the wings of a butterfly flapping.
He says, ‘No need to be scared.You’ll like it.’ His voice softens even more, as he adds, ‘It’s a nice school. My son goes there.’
I can’t hide my surprise.
He smiles, and his dark eyes crease into triangles. ‘His name’s Jonathan. He’s in Year 10. You see him, you tell him his dad says to help you, okay? If you need anything.’ He holds his lanyard up above the back of the seat and says, ‘This is me.’
I see his ID photo and his name: Kenny Do.
The female officer nudges him, and he turns back to face the front. I study him from behind. He has thick black hair, clipped carefully in around his ears. His uniform is wrinkled around the shoulders, as if someone only ironed the flat bits. His wife, I suppose.
I’ve seen him in our compound before; he’s one of the good officers, Zahra says.
I silently practise the names I need to remember. Strange sounds. New words.
Kenny Do. Jonathan.
smog in my head.
Heart like lead.
swing the soles
of my feet
to touch the tiles.
See it’s eight.
Want to text Will,
then remember I can’t.
smoking with the boys,
choking on dumb jokes
Skating home in the dark.
Dad on the moulting velvet couch,
holding the remote control,
(carefully bound in cling wrap
to preserve it from the elements).
Watching The Godfather.
(A burnt DVD he bought for a dollar.)
He looks up, voice hard.
‘Where you been, Jonathan?’
I hate that name.
I take a step closer.
Look him in the eyes,
let him see the red cracks in mine;
fault lines above hell.
‘You been drinking?
Or smoking again?’
His eyes flare.‘Why you do this?
Waste your time on stupid things?’
He uses the only real power he has:
‘Give me your phone.’
I slump into a groan,
know from experience he won’t budge.
into his hand.
He looks triumphant. ‘One week.’
Seven days stretch
black and endless.
I force myself to stand
and start the day.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist