Review by Laura Helyer
‘In the hours that pass the dimensions of the world are reduced to the sound of the road: the stickiness of wheels on bitumen, the wind-rush of passing vehicles.’ (15)
Hinterland by Caroline Brothers is a poetic and moving first novel about the challenging, epic journey made by two young Afghan boys towards an idea of Europe, to England, where the recently orphaned brothers believe they will be able to obtain an education and asylum. Aryan, the elder brother must ensure the safety of his brother, Kabir. His account is textured by the troubling memories of the deaths of their parents and brother, as well as the obstacles they have suffered so far when the reader joins them already embarked on their odyssey as they try to get to Athens. These memories and traumas are vividly depicted through dream-like passages which disrupt the intense, present tense emergencies and onward narrative momentum of their plight. Indeed, it is Aryan’s overriding concern for his brother that inevitably sustains them both, illustrated through the mnemonic songline of cities he makes him repeat ‘KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon!’ (11) and the child-like challenge of who will get there first. It is the sincerity and persuasive depiction of this relationship between two vulnerable, lonely brothers who are forced to become adults too soon which is one of the real strengths of the novel.
Although the dialogue and exposition can feel strained in places and the characterisation is perhaps not as immersive as one might have hoped, Brothers possesses an original and striking style. There are a few moments when this can feel overwritten or jarring- as in ‘his face is a pale disk in the crepuscular light’, (6) – however, there are many occasions of luminous, almost filmic imagery, particularly with regard to making the reader really feel the hardships, boredom and fear of illegal travel and sleeping rough, through sensuous detail. For example:
The next road is less well made. There is a different rhythm under the tyres, a regular double bump as the wheels hit the joints in the surface. The change in tone wakes men who have learned to listen in their sleep; from the crinkle of their clothes and their silence Aryan can tell they are alert and straining for clues. (17)
Throughout, Brothers uses repetition as an effective narrative device as when, towards the end of the novel, Aryan, hidden in an ice truck, recounts and catalogues their journey as an inventory of images, painful memories and bad decisions. Her main innovation, I feel, is in the deft handling and transitions between past and present, in the way travel and movement can create a dream space and how she uses this to reveal a collage-like impression of the brothers’ predicament and how, though they seem at first very alone, are also understood to be bound up in a network of family, family friends, favours and obligations.
This is an ambitious and important novel, which makes a valid attempt to uncover a truth about the impact of conflict on displaced minors. It also engages with pertinent and difficult themes such as lost or confused identity and child abuse. Brothers clearly draws on her experience as a historian, journalist and work as a foreign correspondent to write a compelling, nuanced and informed portrayal. I will certainly be looking out for her next book.