Staff review by Chris Saliba
A teenage love story and a faithful depiction of life in an Australian detention centre.
Ana is an Iranian asylum seeker, kept in detention at Wickham Point Detention Centre with her mother, Maman, and younger brother, Arash. They have been transferred from Nauru, but Maman’s partner, Abdul, has had to stay behind due to a criminal charge. He punched a wall. Ana is living two lives, because during the day she is let out of detention to attend high school. Her life behind the razor wire she tries not to discuss.
Early on at school she meets Jono. She feels embarrassed, almost ashamed, to admit to him that she lives in detention. Jono has a complicated story of his own. His parents have recently split up and he’s not talking to his Australian born mother (his father is Vietnamese). Jono is moody, frustrated and often acting out. A final twist in his story is the occupation of his father, Kenny. Kenny is a guard at Wickham Point Detention Centre. He’s been told not to trust the asylum seekers – they’re always trying to get something out of you.
Kenny has suspicions that Jono has started a relationship with Ana and is determined to stop it. When a riot breaks out at the detention centre, tragedy and heartbreak ensue for Ana and Jono.
Between Us follows Clare Atkins’ award winning debut novel, Nona and Me. The story is told in the voices of the three main characters, Ana, Jono and Kenny. The plot and events are quite straight forward: troubled yet sensitive bad boy meets beautiful, intelligent Iranian girl with complex background. Atkins moves skilfully through the troubled world of teenage love, capturing the language, pop culture references and general angst of being young. Over this she delicately weaves a nuanced drama of asylum seeker life in Australia – the brutality and toughness.
The great achievement of Between Us is in how it marries teenage fiction to a well researched depiction of Australia’s detention centres. We witness all the small rules and regulations that asylum seekers have to comply with. For example, in one scene when Ana agrees to meet Jono at the pictures, she doesn’t inform the officer who must accompany her on excursions outside the detention centre. Once the officer finds out, Ana is threatened with the incident being reported. In another scene, when Jono tries to present Ana with some watermelon cut into wedges and placed in a plastic container, the attending officer says that this isn’t permitted. Throughout the book we are reminded that asylum seekers are referred to by a number, another way to humiliate and dehumanise.
A delicate teenage love story and a truthful presentation of life in an Australian detention centre.
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Between Us, by Clare Atkins. Published by Black Inc. ISBN 9781760640217 RRP: $19.99