School in England is the dream motivating two Afghan boys on their dangerous trek across Europe.
Here they come, 15 men, following the smuggler’s directions as they cross the river in full flood, the border between Turkey and Greece, part of a current phenomenon of trans-Europe migration. Accompanying them are two little guys, 14-year-old Aryan, the viewpoint character, and his 8-year-old brother Kabir. They are orphans. They lost their parents in separate terrorist attacks back home; an older brother was murdered by the Taliban. The boys have already covered many miles, spending time in Tehran and Istanbul. Now, across the river in Greece, they board a truck that makes an unexpected stop when the brothers are handed over to a waiting Greek farmer. “Here’s your merchandise,” says the driver. Seven months of forced labor follow; at one point Kabir is sodomized by another truck driver. Then they abscond, hopping another truck, slowly making their way to Italy and France. There’s a Hollywood moment in Nice when a married couple from Los Angeles, Iranian-Americans, buys them clothes, dinner and tickets to Paris, but then it’s back to reality in Calais, where swarms of Africans and Middle Easterners are living in makeshift camps. Aryan is tear-gassed by the cops and fingerprinted. The only free route to England seems to be the refrigerated truck, a potential death trap. First novelist Brothers, an Australian, is a journalist who has covered this story; she acknowledges her debt to a French language memoir by Wali Mohammadi. The question is how well her account of lost children on the march translates into fiction. How convincing is Aryan? He’s a saintly, protective big brother, and so resourceful he qualifies as Superboy, but he’s not individuated enough, any more than those American Good Samaritans or Idris, king of the Calais smugglers.
A debut that personalizes a humanitarian crisis but fails to fully penetrate others’ lives as does, say, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.