The older I get, the more I find that I prefer reading what’s called by the rather unflattering name of Young Adult fiction. I mean those usually slim books, usually written by Britons of various hues, which pretend to cater to the tastes of late teenagers. They tend to be short (to suit the mayfly attention span of the typical teenager) and (for the same reason) move the story along briskly. Unlike, say, the unspeakable Frederick Forsythe, there’s no time wasted in endless exposition designed to show off the author’s research and to hide the paper-thin weakness of the plot. And there’s no compulsory romance subplot (meant to appeal to the female readership, I assume), gratuitous sex or overcomplicated conspiracies that depend on twenty different things going just right if they’re to succeed.
I’ve just finished reading a lovely little example of the genre, Robert Swindells’ Ruby Tanya. As I believe I’ve said in the past, I only review two kinds of things (books, movies, whatever) – that which I really, really like or that which I really, really detest. This one would be in the first category – and, to be honest, I got a little emotional reading it. That’s right, the Butcher was wet-eyed; well, maybe a tear or two.
It’s the early 2000s. The pretty little British village of Tipton Lacey seems very nice and calm on the surface, but things aren’t anything like as fine underneath. A large number of refugees – brown-skinned Muslims, O horrors – have been resettled in a temporary detention camp in an abandoned Air Force base. They’ve fled a campaign of genocidal ethnic cleansing in their homeland, an unnamed Asian country, but from the names of the people I’ll bet you they’re meant to be Pakistanis. You don’t get Arabs called Butt and Akhtar and Malik, or Kurds or Iranians either.
One of the girls in the local school, which the refugee children also attend, is twelve-year-old Ruby Tanya Redwood. Her best friend is Asra, the daughter of one of the refugee couples in the camp. And here’s the problem: her father, Ruby Tanya's that is, a real estate agent by trade, is also a far-right winger who wants the “terrorists” deported back where they came from, because Britain is for the British only.
That might not have mattered so much, if there hadn’t been a bomb blast in the school one day in which two students were badly injured and a student teacher killed. The villagers, led by Ruby Tanya’s father, immediately blame the “terrorists” at the refugee camp, and plan demonstrations against them. Ruby Tanya and Asra are forced to meet clandestinely, and the bullies at school have a field day picking on the refugee children. And that’s not all that happens...
Ruby Tanya’s father, the Britain-for-the-British radical, makes contact with a far right wing party with a militant wing. It promises to back him in local elections in return, and – once the “terrorists” have been evicted from the derelict airfield – to let him handle the “developments” which will be constructed on the “liberated” land.
Meanwhile, the police arrest and interrogate Asra’s father, a chemical engineer, on the grounds that only he could have had the knowledge to make a bomb. Though he’s found innocent, his application for asylum is rejected and the family is due to be forcibly deported back to where they came from.
Ruby Tanya and Asra hatch a plan together for the latter to hide in a deserted farm in another part of the old airport. With the connivance of Ruby Tanya’s grandmother, an old-time liberal who furnishes them with bedding and utensils apart from food, they stock the old farmhouse and equip it as a refuge. When the police come for Asra’s family, she somehow manages to escape and hides out in the farmhouse while her family is deported.
Around the same time, Ruby Tanya’s mother – who is also a liberal, and has no sympathy with her husband’s political aims – discovers from her husband that it wasn’t the refugees who had set the bomb. He’s overheard things which have made him believe that it was the radical Nazi party itself which was responsible for the bombing, and the dead student teacher had actually been planting the bomb when it had gone off and killed him. This leads to a break in his relations with the Nazis but doesn’t dent his political ambitions, which still revolve around evicting the refugees.
Meanwhile, Asra is still hiding in the old farm, undiscovered despite a massive search for her. It is while she’s hiding there that she sees and hears things which lead her to believe something much worse is being planned...
...I am not going to put up any spoilers here, so I’m not going to describe the story further. But it has a fairly predictable denouement, with most of the loose ends tied up at the end and most of the characters living “happily ever after”. If that were all there was to the book I wouldn’t have bothered reviewing it.
No. The thing about this little novel that brought tears to my eyes is the wonderful friendship between the two girls. The story is told in chapters from both their points of view, about three chapters of Ruby Tanya alternating with one of Asra, except for the very last one which is a joint one from them both. They are utterly believable characters, so much so that I find it impossible to believe they weren’t patterned on real people. Ruby Tanya, rebellious, disgusted with her parents’ “fratching”, despising her father ("the Moron") while still unable to shake her love for him; and Asra, fearful of the British, terrified for her own family, and yet desperately yearning for her only friend, Ruby Tanya. These two are wonderful, deeply moving young ladies, and I defy anyone to read the book without feeling for them as people.
There’s also the wonderful use of styling in the novel. It feels odd at first when one sees that there is absolutely no use of quotation marks, so that the reader has to decide for him/herself where conversations begin and end. But since the story is told as what’s going on in the minds of the two girls, that fits right in. After all, one doesn’t put mental quotes around what people say when one’s talking to them.
And there’s the language, too. None of the book is in standard English. The Ruby Tanya chapters are in English school slang of the period, replete with words like “div”, “twonk” or the aforementioned “fratching” (quarrelling). Asra’s chapters are told in the kind of English a beginner might use, complete with grammatical errors aplenty, but steadily improving as the book progresses and she becomes more expert. And as she speaks, we catch multiple glimpses of the situation in her homeland, where villages are cluster-bombed and one can be called a “goat” for belonging to the wrong ethnic group.
Of course I have problems with the book, too. Nothing’s perfect, after all. One is the too-pat ending, quite predictable as it is. Another is a speech that Ruby Tanya’s mother makes to her husband, calling Britain a land of freedom. Yes, it’s such a land of freedom. Ask those of us who were enslaved and looted to destitution by the British what a land of freedom it is. And there was a third point, which escapes my mind at the moment. Advancing age, you know.
But still it was worth reviewing, and there’s little higher praise than that.
Note: I’ve read a few other reviews which claim. like this one, that the refugees were from an “unnamed East European country”. Where they came up with that one I don’t know, because the book clearly calls them “Asian” and says it was a desert country with hot days and cold nights. I suppose using "east European" comes so easily to Westerners that they no longer even think about it.