‘This is what comes of getting too close, I told myself. You lose all perspective. I kept myself busy with laundry and then I picked fruit in the orchard, but my mind was on the world, the underworld, that I’d glimpsed from its edge, the figures pacing the high white fence along the railway line, shoulders up against the cold, hands deep in coat pockets, dark heads bent. Like figures from history or documentaries, I realised, like second-hand memories of war.’
– ‘The Terrier’, breach
Peirene Press’ latest release, the highly anticipated Peirene Now! No.1 breach, is a collection of brilliantly heartfelt stories following the tales of the refugee camps in the border town of Calais in France, the last town before the UK. Commissioned by Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press Publisher, breach contains eight short stories brilliantly assembled by the writers, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes. Commissioned by Peirene Press to visit the Calais refugee camps to learn the stories of those living there, Popoola and Holmes have brilliantly distilled their experiences into the short works of fiction in this collection.
The stories in this collection each capture a moment, a brief insight filled to the brim with powerful feeling and emotion. While reading breach, I found that more than once I felt hollowed out and filled with these stories, with their intensity. Each story is cleverly self-contained, yet the entire collection has a continuous flow, weaving together a series of emotions that consume the reader. These stories have equal parts empathy, insight, humour and tragedy, and are uniquely written to share all sides of the refugee crisis, giving voices to everyone who has a story to tell.
Perhaps my favourite in the collection is ‘Paradise’, detailing the relationships between volunteers in the camps and those they are trying to help, specifically the young people in the Calais refugee camps. ‘Paradise’ ends with potentially the most heart-wrenching line I read in the entire collection:
“All the volunteers go. And you leave us here in the Jungle, thinking about you, missing you. It’s painful,” he says, “so please don’t love us so much.”
This plea for distance between those volunteering at the camps and those living there makes hits you hard as a reader. Often the line we are fed is that we are too ignorant of those suffering as a result of civil war, terrorism or other life threatening factors, so to read this line is perhaps the most striking moment in the book – to find out that our loving them can be just as detrimental to their morale as our ignoring their plight.
A close second is ‘Oranges In The River’, a short tale following Dlo and Jan, two young refugees trying to smuggle themselves to the UK in refrigerated trucks. There is a strangely beautiful moment when they remove boxes and boxes of oranges from one of these trucks, sending them floating down the river in droves, to make space to hide in. Dlo takes one of these oranges and tucks it carefully into his pocket, to save for a desperate time, a habit from his hardworn travels to Calais, despite the fact he will soon be climbing into a truck packed full to the brim with oranges. There is something incredibly telling in this small act, and reading it feels incredibly intimate.
It is important to recognise that these stories are works of fiction. These stories were not written to begin a pity party for the refugees camping in Calais, nor were they written to make us consider them as simple charity cases. These stories bring all the complexities of the refugees and their lives, as well as the challenges of the refugee crisis in Europe, to readers who may not have had such incredible emotional insight into the lives of those currently affected by the current refugee crisis. There is a seed of truth in these stories, and it is a credit to the authors, who committed themselves to thorough research and the desire to learn from those they met in Calais.
Of course, breach follows in Peirene Press’ tradition of cleverly written European novellas, short in length but easily one of the strongest works of fiction I have read this year. I cannot recommend it enough, particularly given the current political climate and debates around the international refugee crisis. Reading this collection is one of the most important things I have done this year, and I wholeheartedly believe it should be shared with as many people as possible.
breach is available in all good bookstores, or directly from Peirene Press. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores and support independent press.
Thank you once again to Peirene Press for sending me a copy of breach. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.
© Hayley New 2016