Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill - a review

I heard Jo Cotterill read the opening of this book at a writers' retreat last summer and I thought then - "Blimey, she's brave!" Now the completed book is out I have no reason to revise my opinion. No country, religion or ruling party is mentioned but Amina and her sister Jenna live in a hot country where women are required to wear headscarves and "liberating" soldiers are arriving to depose the Kwana who rule repressively.

Amina's stable family life is overturned in a moment, when her rebellious older brother runs away to join the resistance, her father is murdered in front of her, and she and Jenna are separated from their mother and little sister at a checkpoint on their way to a refugee camp.

It doesn't sound like much fun in a synopsis, does it?

The bulk of the book takes place in the overcrowded refugee camp where Amina and Jenna have to make do with virtually nothing. And yet they manage to make friends and have some kind of a life. This is largely because Amina has one inalienable possession - her imagination. She is a gifted storyteller and gradually her fame spreads in the camp, with more and more people coming to hear her invented tales.

There is a reunion of a kind at the end but not a happy ending as such. Amina and Jenna have new responsibilities. But somehow we know they will cope and survive, especially with Amina's stories to give them hope and keep their spirits up.

Jo Cotterill's story is utterly convincing, at times brutal and upsetting but ultimately a tribute to the power of the imagination to lift the human spirit above the harsh realities of life. "We are all in the gutter/ but some of us are looking at the stars" is the quotation from Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol which gave her the title and is the book's epigraph.

(You might know Jo's other teenage novels: Red Tears and Screwed, written as Jo Kenrick. But be warned: this one is not suitable for the young readership that have enjoyed her Sweet Hearts series also written as Jo Cotterill).


Miriam Halahmy said...

I remember that reading too and have looked forward to this book, further inspired by this honest and heartfelt review. All good things Jo!

Rachel Hamilton said...

This is an incredibly powerful book and I would argue that it is appropriate for young readers (10+) as I believe they'll get a huge amount out of reading it. However, I would suggest that a parent/guardian/friend reads it at the same time so kids have someone to talk to about the issues raised.

Yes, some of the events are traumatic, but they are interlaced with hope and humanity. We received the book at Book Walrus for review, and after reading it myself, I happily shared it with our reviewer, Amber aged 10, who thought it was wonderful (her review should be up in the next 24 hours).

I am also planning to share it with my son (9, bookaholic) as he has been asking a lot of questions about the images of Syria we see on the television and I think this will provide an interesting perspective on the experiences of refugees globally.

Anonymous said...

I've not read the book (yet!), but my daughter (11/yr 7) was given it by her school librarian, and says it is her stand out book of the year so far.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous, you have just made my day! :-)