Monday, May 23, 2011

Where I Belong by Gillian Cross

Ever since I arrived in England, I'd been like a frozen girl. When my father handed me over to the hambaar man, he sent me into a world where no one knew me and no one cared who I was.

I chose to read Where I Belong because it just seemed so different in theme from many current young adult titles. Where I Belong combines the eclectic mixture of Somalia, England, haute couture fashion, modelling, kidnapping and extortion! How strange is that?!

The story is told in alternating voices of three teenagers whose lives come together in a very unexpected manner. There is 14 year old Adbi (Abdirahman) Ahmed Mussa, an ethnic Somali, born in the Netherlands, now residing in London, England. Abdi lives in Battle Hill, a Somali suburb with his mother and three sisters. Abdi's father, Ahmed Mussa Ali has vanished amid the civil strife and drought that has beset Somalia, and is presumed dead. His family lives near his uncle, Suliman Osman and his family in Battle Hill. His family is asked to take in an illegal immigrant, a young Somali girl named Khadija so that she can receive an education and help her family back home.

Khadija is a 13 year old native Somalian who lives in a remote village with her younger brother Mahmoud and her siblings, Zainab and Sagal.. She is striking young girl because she is very tall. Her father, at the beginning of the story, is a wealthy man by Somali standards, owning many camels and goats. He has two wives, one of whom lives in Mogadishu.

Freya is the daughter of iconic fashion designer, Sandy Dexter and former war photographer David. Her father who has photographed the wars in Darfur, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Somalia, now teaches photography and does portraits. Her parents are separated but remain on friendly terms with each other. Freya spends most of her time with her dad who is more reliable and grounded than her flighty mom who is always trying to create a new avant garde collection.

Added to the three voices is that of Mahmoud, Khadija's younger brother who tells us what life is like back in Somalia after his sister leaves and what happens to him in particular. His point of view is brief but highlighted in bold text throughout the story and for me was the most sympathetic character in the entire novel.

Six months after arriving in England, Khadija and the Somali community learn that Somalia has been hit by severe drought. She wants to help her family and with the help of Abdi they go to Suliman's internet cafe and email her brother Mahmoud. Khadija gets a job cleaning Auntie Safia's corner store with the intent of sending money back to her family in Somalia.

Meanwhile Sandy Dexter has returned from Paris and is busy researching Somalia for her next collection. She designs a special burqua and in a bizarre twist, when she and Freya are walking about wearing them in Battle Hill as part of her research, Sandy "discovers" Khadija. It is at this point that the lives of Freya, Abdi and Khadija connect.

Khadija is offered an opportunity to be the "face" of Sandy Dexter's new collection but strangely, her face will never be seen because she will be wearing a burqua. No one must know who she is and Sandy asks Khadija and Abdi to keep everything a secret. Sandy is planning to show her collection live from Somalia in a special show that will be live streamed. Sandy's offer of work, now means that Khadija will have lots of money to help her family.

Shortly after this, Khadija's brother Mahmoud is kidnapped by Somali pirates who tell her she has three months to come up with $10,000. Both Abdi and Khadija are puzzled as to how the kidnappers know Khadija suddenly has access to money. Khadija suspects that somehow her email to Mahmoud was intercepted but she can't understand how. The reader however, is easily able to know who is at fault.

Because Khadija and Abdi feel that his parents will never allow Khadija to display herself on the runway they seek the help of Abdi's uncle, Suliman Osman. Suliman poses as Khadija's father and accompanies Khadija and Abdi over to Somalia for the fashion show. Mysteriously, the kidnappers learn of the location of the fashion show and come to the village with Mahmoud demanding that his ransom be paid. When Sandy refuses to pay the money, things move swiftly to a final strange resolution.

Although I liked the entire idea behind Where I belong, at times it just didn't work for me. The idea that a Western woman could go into Somalia, a country where respect for authority doesn't exist, and hold a fashion show in the middle of the desert seemed incredible. Cross gets around this by having Suliman making all of the arrangements, a situation I have trouble believing Sandy Dexter would accept. I don't know what the protocol would be for going to a country like Somali but I'm sure it would not be as presented in Where I Belong.

The resolution to the kidnapping set up by Cross also seemed very unrealistic. Somali pirates are renowned for their brutality and are heavily armed. They would have had no problems dealing with the situation set up by the author. Would three kidnappers with one gun confront a village with at least twenty armed guards? Again, Cross gets past this problem with another twist in the storyline, one that has been set up early in the book. There is also the possibility that everyone Suliman hires in Somalia but most importantly, all the guards, were in on the kidnapping - in which case $10,000 doesn't go very far.

I also didn't like the nonsense Freya's parents fed her at the end when she asks them to "give up all that rubbish about being separated..." Instead of giving her an answer she deserves, Freya's father dishes out some pop-psychology in the form of a story, typical of adults who believe their "choice" is best for everyone involved. However, given that I was disgusted with Freya's father's self-serving answer to her, I realize that this very much is the reality in many relationships today.

One thing that was very well done was the character of Sandy Dexter whose single-mindedness and concern for only fashion is well contrasted with that of her husband David. It was disheartening to read how Sandy just dumped Freya when she was off figuring out her next "inspiration". The best demonstration of Sandy's character though was her determination to keep the fashion show running all the while a young boy's life was at risk during the intense drama of a kidnapping. Khadija, who is horrified at the Westerner's focus on appearances and inane minutiae, remarks at this point,

What did I care? I felt as though I was in the kind of dream where real things are unimportant and tiny details shake the earth. My brother had been captured by violent, ruthless men, but no one seemed to care whether he lived or died. The only thing that mattered was how my eyes were painted....
So much money being spent on such trivial, frivolous things. What did these people think they were doing?

Where I Belong superficially explores the theme of belonging - whether it's where Freya belongs or where the Somali characters belong. It is most evident with Abdi's character, especially when he visits Somalia because although he was born in the Netherlands, he feels he belongs in Somalia. Khadija too feels she has no sense of belonging in England.

Overall, Where I Belong is a valiant attempt at a very difficult subject and one that I would guess would be difficult to write from the perspective of an English author. This book will be of interest to those wanting to read something a little different in teen lit.

This is the lovely cover for Where I Belong in the UK:

Book Details:
Where I Belong by Gillian Cross
Maple Vail, York PA: Holiday House 2011
245 pp.

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