One of the most difficult things for any writer is to create recognisable characters while avoiding cliche. This is particularly hard to achieve when your subject matter is regularly dealt with in over emotive, one-sided and sensational headlines in the media. Readers will arrive with some prejudice or other taken from whichever political points of view they hold; it’s unavoidable. Play up to stereotypes and you will be accused of resorting to cliche, overly subvert them and the situations and characters become unrecognisable. The balance between individuals and issues is a fine act to pull off.
Karen Campbell’s novel This Is Where I Am is about a culture clash between two people who discover that while they may not always want one another, they come to need each other. Abdi Hassan is a Somalian refugee who has had to flee his home to save his, and his daughter Rebecca’s, life. They are housed in Glasgow where he is appointed a mentor to help with his adjustment to the city.
That mentor is Deborah Maxwell, a widow who has her own reasons for taking up such a role, but who is determined to do the right thing, even when she is unsure as to what that thing is. Abdi and Deborah’s relationship is an uneasy one, with the reader initialy believing this arrives not only from a language barrier, but from their different social and cultural backgrounds. What soon becomes clear is that both are united, and divided, by grief and terrible incidents from their past. They may initially appear to have little in common but they share the guilt that can accompany making the wrong decision, or from making no decision at all. When you scratch their polite and respectful fronts, the raw emotion which lies beneath means that the two are bound to hurt each other before any healing can begin.
Deborah and Abdi’s voices and their situations are as believable as they are heartbreaking. What they may represent to wider society is quickly overtaken as their individual stories, and their spirit, shines through. They are absolutely rounded individuals; at times compassionate and caring, at others proud and self pitying, but they are always human. By having two central narrators, readers get a clear insight into their misunderstandings and how they occur, and also where the anger, hurt and confusion comes from.
The best writing, or at least the most emotional, is understated, allowing the reader to recognise the situations, and then fill in the blanks with how they would try to cope. Not many writers manage to show the horror of the lives of others in a way which stays on the right side of sensational, but by using the unreliable memories of her narrators, Campbell does this beautifully. Both Deborah and Abdi have had to deal with terrible things, things which they struggle to make sense of. Not knowing the full story can be the worst thing of all, and it is in trying to make sense of the past that the two find true friendship and trust. Too few books are about the capacity that human beings have for kindness and compassion. Scottish writing in particular features a cast of deceitful characters who put themselves first, and often they’re the heroes. This Is Where I Am is a refreshingly human and humane novel. There may be selfishness and self pity, but the desire to do the right thing for others drives the characters, and the plot, forward.
There is always the philosophical question concerning why people do good deeds. Can such acts be pure altruism, or are they always tainted by more selfish reasons? As with most circular arguments eventually you have to say “who cares?”. Deborah initially helps Abdi and Rebecca because she feels the need to atone, and the desire to move on, but as soon as she gets to know them as individuals, and they come to know her, their lives become intertwined inexorably, and the care that they have for one another is what defines true friendship. They stop putting themselves first because an other’s well-being is more important.
What This Is Where I Am shows that questions of why people act is of little importance in people’s everyday lives, it is the act itself that matters. The novel is about the desire for broken people not only to heal themselves, but to help heal other people; an instinct which comes from recognising ourselves in others, and which can cut across religion, race, class, nationality, or any other division that you care to mention. This Is Where I Am breaks through the preconceptions and prejudices of the characters, and the readers, to act as a reminder that there is more that unites us than divides us. Karen Campbell has written an ultimately uplifting novel which recognises there is hope even in the bleakest of siutations, and that sometimes we just can’t make it on our own. A tonic for heart and soul.