Recently widowed Glaswegian Deborah Maxwell volunteers at the Scottish Refugee Council and is assigned refugee Abdi Hassan as a mentee. Abdi has arrived in the UK from war torn Somalia via the dreadful Dadaab camp in Kenya. With him he has his four year old daughter Rebecca and a red rucksack. Rebecca is mute until Deborah manages to break through her silence revealing the horror Rebecca is trying to suppress. As Deborah and Abdi’s friendship grows both of them learn to accept their pasts and live for a new kind of future.
This is where I am is written in two alternating first person narratives and both Deborah and Abdi’s voices are a triumph. They are distinct, convincing, wonderful speakers. Campbell has chosen to write the majority of the novel in the present tense and this has created an intimacy between the reader and the characters that is totally captivating. Neither character is stronger than the other: they are equally alive and vibrant. Campbell is obviously a writer fascinated by the cadences of speech and has imbued her character Abdi with the same love of language. The juxtaposition of a mentor speaking with a strong Glaswegian accent and a Somalian desperate to learn the intricacies of English is both touching and laugh out loud funny. It is this humour that creates the human warmth in this story which could so easily have been brutal, dark and depressing. Early on we see Abdi grasping at language, savouring it:
‘Urging my ears to focus, scooping up all these fast-flying words. They are like insects, and I am a lizard, still, then flicking, trying to catch, trying to swallow and digest each one before the next one darts by.’
The people are not the only characters in this novel. Glasgow itself looms over the characters lives and it is a different city depending on who is viewing it. Deborah the staunch Glaswegian takes pleasure in showing Abdi her home town and in the process relearns to love it herself. She takes him to Kelvingrove Art Gallery, The Tenement House (a National Trust for Scotland property), Scotland Street School Museum, Loch Lomond and many others and we see Glasgow as Deborah does and I suspect how Campbell herself sees it. Campbell was a police officer and in Deborah’s travels (and to a lesser extent Abdi’s) we can feel the endless footsteps Campbell herself must have trodden through the city. It is through Abdi’s eyes however that we see the beauty (and the occasional horror) in the everyday observations of an eye looking for the first time.
‘They screech and chew their words here, spit them out faster than gunfire, their heads crack and dart, they swagger and they duck, all of them. It will be the cold in their bones, making them fragile. These people are stooped jerky.’
As the story progresses Abdi has moments of flashback to his life in the Dadaab camp in Kenya and it is in these sections that the full horror of Abdi’s life is laid bare and the book reveals its message: give refugees a chance, a home, sanctuary because it’s impossible to imagine the heart of darkness they’ve experienced. It’s a powerful message and one that will resonate as the world faces difficult times and an ever increasing need to provide sanctuary for those in desperate need.
Friendship is a key theme in the story, but the path to friendship is not easy for Deborah and Abdi and Campbell captures perfectly the struggles both of them experience as they learn to understand each other. At their initial meeting Deborah suggests they meet ‘by the elephant’ at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, then worries that she’s made an awful mistake, that he’ll think she’s making fun of him ‘like saying I’ll meet you in the jungle’. The relationship Deborah forms with Rebecca is touching and beautiful. Although not everyone Abdi encounters is pleased to have him live near them, Abdi manages to form other alliances and friendships, separate to his relationship with Deborah and this gives the story hope and faith in human nature.
There are people who I’m sure will say that it isn’t right or possible even, to write convincingly from another culture’s point of view. Campbell proves here that that simply isn’t true. The voice of Abdi is clear, strong and utterly believable. He isn’t a man, or a black African, he is human and that really is all he needs to be. Ultimately I think that that is what Campbell has done here: shown humanity with all its faults and flaws and unbearable acts of brutality, but also its love for ones fellow man and the ability to connect with one another across cultures, across pain and humiliation and to cut through loss and fear by showing love and kindness, one human being to another.
Any Cop?: This is where I am is a wonderful, erudite, beautiful book with an important message told through a fabulous, gripping story that will leave you hollowed out, but happy.