Well done, book group. I could not have have started the 2015 reading year in better fashion. This is Where I Am is a rivetting novel that I urge everyone to read – especially if you are from Glasgow.
It is the story of two people starting from a personal ground zero. Deborah is a recently bereaved widow who volunteers at the Scottish Refugee Council in an effort to fill her time. Abdi is an asylum seeker from Somalia who has arrived in Glasgow with his 4 year-old daughter, Rebecca. We do not know what has happened to bring him here, but we do know his daughter stopped speaking following the loss of her mother.
Deborah is assigned to Abdi as a mentor. Her role isn’t just to guide him through the process of applying for refugee status. She is to show him the city that may become his home and help him adjust to his new existence. It’s not plain sailing. First there is the physical reality. “There are not that many tall, black men in Glasgow”. Abdi is conspicuous. Glasgow has its fair share of rascists and Abdi is targeted. Secondly, the mental trauma of the past. A series of flashbacks reveal the reasons for Abdi asylum seeking status and his daughter’s silence. Thirdly, the trials of a bureaucratic system, designed, at times, to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from making progress.
Deborah too has much to learn. She is financially comfortable but the long years of caring for her husband have left her isolated. So the volunteer work is a first step into reconnecting with society. Perhaps for this reason, she invests more in the relationship with Abdi and his daughter than I would have expected, though it’s fortunate for them that she becomes a friend who cares, despite the emotional scars and cultural minefields that must be negotiated.
You could say that this is a political novel and, in these days when – shall we say – foreigner-bashing is becoming increasingly prevalent, it will make some question their preconceptions. However, in no way is this a didactic read. It is a humane story of reentry into society.
It is also a portrait of a city. Each chapter begins with the description and history of a place, whether that be one of Glasgow’s iconic sites, such as the Kelvingrove museum, or one of the less touristy spots, such as Leverndale mental hospital. They are all places where Deborah and Abdi meet and the descriptions serve to show the contrast and colour of Scotland’s largest city. The same is true of the demography. The supporting cast is just as varied. For every obnoxious rascist (and one is particularly beyond the pale), there is a warm, generous-hearted Glaswegian. For every hypocritical professional cum politician, there is a sincere man of the streets. For every asylum seeker who succeeds, three fail with differing fates awaiting them.
Campbell is not just showing where Abdi is, but how it is, and it’s not always pretty. It is an emotionally honest novel, uncomfortable in places. Campbell does give us an ambiguously happy ending (you have to read it) but at the cost of an unfeasible plot twist. (My only criticism.)
That said, this doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the novel at all. Primarily due to the language. Whether it be Glaswegian banter in a supermarket fishmongery, impenetrable bureaucratic jargon, or the bemused misunderstanding of someone coming to terms with English idiom, the pitch is flawless and frequently hilarious.
Her Sunday School teacher told her she was a ‘mucky pup’ after craft-time, when she had glue on her hair and chin I looked up “pup’ in my dictionary afterwards – it means young dog. She called my little girl an animal!
Fortunately Abdi realises this is not an insult and adopts it as his daughter’s nickname. Lovely, isn’t it? Just another of this novel’s many endearing features.