Is it Always Right to Tell the Truth?

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The Other Side of Truth By Beverley NaidooThirteen-year old Sade and her younger brother Femi live a pleasant suburban life in Nigeria, with a nice house, a loving family and a great school nearby where they enjoy their studies. It’s certainly not the ‘deprived’ impression that we’re so often given of life in West Africa. The trouble is that their father is a man for whom Truth is the only way and as a journalist who expresses opinions that the authorities would prefer not to see, his life and that of his family is endangered. The idyllic childhood is shattered when the children’s mother is savagely killed on the doorstep of their home. The assassins make it plain that it’s the father that they are really after. A sinister phone caller tells the family that the killers don’t mind in the least if they need to kill the entire family before they get round to dispatching the father. Faced with a mortal threat to the family, Sade’s father and uncle quickly arrange to send the children out of the country in the ‘care’ of a trafficker who has passports for children who match Sade and Femi’s ages. Whilst their father believes he’s sending them to a place of safety with another uncle, things go badly awry when the children arrive in London and end up being looked after by foster parents whilst the family fights for the right to remain as asylum seekers.

It’s not my habit to read children’s books. Even when it seemed that you were nobody without a copy of the latest Harry Potter, I couldn’t really see the point. So it was a bit of a surprise when I realised – I’m a bit slow, it was almost half way through – that the book I’d picked up as a clearance bargain in Borders bookshop was actually intended for a much younger target audience. There were surprisingly few clues to tip me off. The cover design and back cover synopsis gave no hints that this was anything other than a regular adult novel.  I sat on a plane, wading through the book, thinking only that the ‘voice’ of Sade had a degree of authenticity and youth that I appreciated for its simplicity and clarity.

The Other Side of Truth is a Carnegie prize winning novel by South African-born author Beverley Naidoo. I’ll confess that I didn’t know what the Carnegie prize was until I googled it and it became apparent that this was a leading children’s writing award endorsed by librarians. Once I knew it was intended for children, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment – if anything it impressed me even more that such a worthwhile book had been targeted at a group who almost certainly lack the insight into the refugee experience that this book offers. How many children who read this will have overheard unfortunate references to ‘bloody immigrants’ and picked up on negativity towards asylum seekers? How many have children in their classes at school who might have a background similar to Sade and Femi and whom they might have been tempted to bully and tease for their sense of ‘otherness’?

“The themes are heavy and important ones that may be new to young readers but they are communicated with admirable clarity and insight.”

The realisation that this was a children’s book dawned slowly as I spotted that the things which happened to the children were a lot less awful than I’d feared. In an adult book the horrors that might await two young children abandoned in London would be much more disturbing – indeed, too disturbing for a young audience. I was expecting a Victoria Climbie scenario, or Sade locked in a cupboard forced to be a ‘maid’ to an evil ‘auntie’ or driven into prostitution, drugs and violence or drawn into the ‘dark arts’ of child exorcism in fundamentalist churches. Thankfully my imaginings were utterly misplaced and I was spared all of that. The focus instead was on the sense of loss, loneliness and yearning for missing parents and home were developed through the pages and the inner conflict of a child taught to tell the truth but temporarily forced to live a lie. Instead of the horrors I feared, we see that potential tragedy is averted by the kindness of strangers – the social workers who support them, the foster parents who go out of their way to offer love and support, and the teachers who try to help them fit into their new schools. Sade is bullied by two girls at her school but finds redemption through friendship and confession and shows her love for her father by taking on the establishment to fight his case for refugee status. Set in the late 1990s in the direct aftermath of the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa, I couldn’t help but think this is the sort of book that should inspire young readers to find out more about human rights abuse.

The themes are heavy and important ones that may be new to young readers but they are communicated with admirable clarity and insight. This book will help readers to understand that life in Nigeria isn’t all ‘mud huts and spears’, that children there can be just like them with nice homes, loving families and friends and happy lives, and that refugees and asylum seekers aren’t all flooding into the UK in search of hand-outs and free benefits. Indeed, many like the family in this novel have given up far more than they can ever gain in material things, just to look for a place of safety.

In positioning the foster carers and social workers as lovely kind people who give the children the time and space to settle in and don’t force them to tell their stories, we get a very different image of the caring professions than we’re exposed to in the media – and it’s a very welcome impression too. I’m sure that the vast majority of such people are good guys and it’s a shame that only the rotten apples make it onto our TV screens and into our newspapers.

From my childhood some of the books that really stuck in my mind were ones which tackled disturbing issues like those covered in this book. I still clearly remember books about the holocaust and the Vietnam war long after the everyday tales of happy childhoods are long forgotten. I hope that in The Other Side of Truth, Naidoo will leave a similar impression on her readers and open their eyes to today’s injustices.

227 pp

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Other Side of Truth (The)
by Beverley Naidoo

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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