Review: Between Us by Clare Atkins

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Ana first sees Jono in a Darwin high-school Science class, where he sits at the back of the class and slouches. When they make eye contact there is an instant connection, and while their first interactions are halting, their friendship and affection grow with each conversation. This contemporary Young Adult novel, however, is not an ordinary girl-meets-boy story. At the end of each school day Ana, an Iranian asylum seeker, is taken with others on a bus back to Wickham Point detention centre where she is being held with her younger brother and pregnant mother.

 

‘He’s staring at our bus in something like confusion. Or shock. Or distaste.

His mouth is half open, like he’s saying ‘Oh…you’re one of them.’

 

While Jono lives in freedom, his life is not entirely easy. His family has also been divided; he lives with his single father Kenny who works as a security guard at the detention centre. Jono is recovering from an episode of depression. There is a tension between Jono and Kenny, a mutual distrust derived from a combination of the recent acrimonious divorce, financial strain and differences in generational outlook.

Like Ana, Jono is also caught between cultures: his estranged mother is white, while his father was born in Vietnam and sponsored to settle in Australia by his sister, who came on a boat in 1977. The spoken history of Jono’s aunt arriving, and the local reception, provide a provocative foil to more recent asylum seekers:

 

‘And they come close, very close and very fast to our boat. And one of them hold up his beer and say, ‘G’day, mate! Welcome to Australia.’’

 

The novel is told at gripping pace from the three rotating view-points of Ana, Jono and Kenny. Each of the teenagers speaks partly in poetic verse, to great effect. There is an instant spark between Ana and Jono. From there, the relationship develops in short bursts of stolen time: on lunch breaks where they share earphones to listen to Australian hip-hop, which Ana describes as ‘beautiful ugly’, through hand-written notes, and online. Dramatic tension builds as we realise Ana and her family may be moved from Darwin after her mother gives birth.

Meanwhile, Kenny becomes compromised between his responsibilities at work and wanting to simultaneously support and protect his son. Within him develops a growing friction between prejudice and humanity.

Adolescence is rarely a smooth transition from childhood to young adulthood; it’s a time of intense emotions, of love and lust, of wanting to belong. Those are years when many want to break free; years of having motivations without means. Ana’s coming of age is compounded by considerable trauma, the fracture of her family, and her environment where powerlessness and perpetual uncertainty takes its toll.

Atkins clearly has done considerable groundwork, particularly in the detailed descriptions of Wickham Point and the detainees which all convey a strong sense of authenticity. Ana and Jono’s plight is sensitively conveyed as the story treads the borderlines between hope and hopelessness.

Between Us is Atkins’ second YA novel. Her award-wining debut Nona and me explores a friendship between an Indigenous and non-Indigenous teenage girl growing up in Yirrkala, Arnhem Land. In both books Atkins approaches complex contemporary social issues and examines them in a manner that is both accessible and unflinching. Her characters and settings effectively create microcosms.  Between Us will appeal both to socially engaged young adults, and older readers invested in younger generations and the situations and conflicts bequeathed to them.

Clare Atkins Between Us Black Inc. 2018 PB 268pp $19.99

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