Shortlist year: 2019
Shortlist category: Young adult literature
Published by: Black Inc
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.
About the author
Clare Atkins has worked as a scriptwriter for many successful television series including All Saints, Home and Away, Winners and Losers and Wonderland. Her debut novel, Nona & Me, received numerous awards and commendations, including being selected as the 2016 Book of the Year in the NT Literary Awards. Her second novel, Between Us, won the 2019 Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers award and was selected as IBBY Australia's 2020 Honour Book for Writing. Atkins wrote both her novels while she was living in the Northern Territory.
The cover of this book hints at the narrative within, with wires symbolising both confinement and a means of communication and the birds representing a freedom that Ana, one of the main characters does not have, confined as she is to a refugee camp.
Jono and Ana meet at school. He is the son of a Vietnamese refugee and she is a Muslim girl who has fled, with her family, the violence of her homeland. There are thus two generations of characters with refugee backgrounds interacting in this novel. As well as the trauma of her dislocation from her home, Ana is also grieving the death of her father who was killed in an outbreak of violence in Iran, violence which left the remainder of the family vulnerable and in danger.
This is a highly political book told as a powerful, polyphonic story. Each of the narrators tells their story in the first person allowing the reader to understand their inner thoughts and their reactions to the other characters. Unusually, in a young adult novel, one of the narrative voices is Kenny, Jono's father, providing an adult perspective on his own background as well as on the other characters and what is happening to them. It is clear that the other guards in the camp do not understand him or the detainees in the camp. This 'othering' of the refugees is an important aspect of the narrative. There is intertextuality too, the required reading at school also signifying lack of understanding and distancing from others' humanity. They are reading S.E Hinton's The Outsiders and John Marsden and Shaun Tan's The Rabbits.
A harrowing, unsentimental and unforgiving story, it ends with a sense of hope for Jono's family as they develop new understandings of each other but there is little hope for Ana and her family as they are moved to a different internment camp, disrupting their lives and the children's education. Signifying the closing in of her world is her narrative voice. Whilst Jono's becomes more articulate and expansive as his understanding of his father, his family background and Ana's life grows, Ana's becomes diminished and less expressive as her world is reduced. Ana describes her little brother as 'scared and scarred', terms which could be applied to all the members of her family.