Review: Guantanamo Boy

Guantanamo Boy – Anna Perera
Puffin – February 5th 2009

Review by Tristan Kennedy

Few subjects in recent political history have proved as controversial and divisive as Guantanamo Bay. For many, the internment camp where Al-Qaeda suspects were held without trial and tortured symbolised everything that was wrong with America under the Bush administration. For some, it was a necessary evil for a country confronted by far darker forces.

The camp became a central to the debate over the nature of patriotism in last year’s US election campaign – so much so that the victor of that campaign made closing it one of his earliest and most public priorities as president. It is not, then, a subject you would necessarily expect to find tackled in a novel by a children’s author. Or at least not a subject you would expect a children’s author to tackle as sensitively and intelligently as Anna Perera does in Guantanamo Boy.

Admittedly the novel, aimed at teenagers, marks something of a departure from Perera’s usual, younger target audiences. But Guantanamo Boy’s ability to deal with the difficult issues surrounding the camp makes it a compelling read for people of all ages – and a remarkable achievement.

Perera looks at Guantanamo through the eyes of Khalid, a 15-year-old British boy of Asian descent. Born and raised in Rochester, computer-mad Khalid is unhappy that his parents are taking him to Pakistan for a family funeral. But like them he little suspects that making such a trip in early 2002 will have dangerous consequences. Kidnapped, held for several months and tortured in several of the notorious ‘secret’ CIA prisons, Khalid is eventually transported to Guantanamo Bay. There, along with the other orange-suited inmates, he is subjected to further interrogations, indignities and the mind-numbing routine of a life without meaningful human contact or affection. Losing his faith in humanity and nearly losing his mind altogether, Khalid is eventually given access to a lawyer, thanks to the efforts of his family and friends back home. More than two years after he was first kidnapped, Khalid is released and allowed to go home.

Khalid’s story, although fictional, is instructive and very plausible. Apparently inspired by a visit to a benefit meeting for juveniles held in Guantanamo, Perera has stuck closely to real-life accounts of the camp given by ex-inmates like Moazzem Begg. The scenes of torture, water-boarding and sleep deprivation are viscerally real. Khalid’s slow, psychological decay and withdrawal into himself is depicted with what feels like horrifying veracity. Perera does not shy away from describing the mental damage caused by long-term isolation or Khalid’s frustration as interrogator after interrogator refuses to believe that he is what he says he is – an entirely innocent child.

However Perera is also too appreciative of her audience’s intelligence to paint this as simply a conflict between good and evil. Shades of grey abound, even under the blinding lights of the interrogation room scenes. From an early stage several of the kidnapping characters are humanised. Some of the nicer American soldiers are even allowed personalities of their own – albeit limited ones. Perera addresses the fear that motivates the imprisoning side. She introduces Khalid’s older cousin Tariq – kidnapped for playing the same homemade computer game – into the cell next to him to explain some of the political context of his treatment.

It is Tariq, helped one of the nice soldiers, who helps drag Khalid back from the edge of the madness. Not only is he knowledgeable enough to explain what is happening to Khalid, he also represents family – a hugely important theme for Perera. For this is a novel about the process of growing as well as the suffering of prisoners in Guantanamo.

Khalid begins the novel with an uneasy relationship with his parents. His father in particular seems to come from a different planet. He hates the idea of visiting dad’s Pakistani relatives, who he doesn’t even really know. Yet his father becomes hugely important to him almost as soon as he is kidnapped. The girl Khalid fancies, and invests much of his hope in while in prison, is shown to be a pale imitation of what he imagined her to be when he emerges. In contrast Perera places heavy emphasis on Khalid’s new-found appreciation for his father, mother and sisters. The hell into which Khalid is cast throws everything into sharp, nightmarish relief, but his tale contains underlying elements universal to many teenage stories – the rejection of nihilism and the acceptance that parents might be there to help.

While some may question whether it is possible for a white, middle-aged woman to properly represent a 15-year-old teenage boy of Asian origin, I believe Perera largely succeeds here. Some of her teenage banter might ring slightly false, but in general her experience as a teacher and running a unit for boys excluded from schools seems to have stood her in good stead.

This novel does not shy away from addressing the big issues, even briefly considering the problem – no doubt currently weighing heavily on Obama’s mind – of what to do with stateless detainees once they are released. There is however a slight sense that Guantanamo Boy does not delve quite deep enough. Khalid feels bitterness at his treatment and is traumatised on his return, but ultimately he has learned to love the world, not hate it – a cathartic but possibly one-dimensional response. The slow pace of some of the lengthy prison scenes might also put off teenagers with short attention spans, though perhaps these are intended to convey the mind-numbing boredom. And while the self-absorption of 15-year-olds is legendary, it would also be nice to see some of the supporting characters fleshed out a bit more fully.

Generally however, these are minor quibbles in a novel that is generally fast-moving, compelling and most importantly, manages to deal with one of the most controversial subjects of the age in a way that is simple, but not simplistic.