Pooja Puri’s The Jungle provides a window on the life of a refugee teenager, Mico, who has left his family and home behind in Kenya in search of a new life. An important issue that is commonly overlooked in more than just fiction, The Jungle’s theme of the displacement and loss suffered in Calais refugee camp has the potential to break crucial new ground. However, whilst it is a charming piece of young adult literature, the novel doesn’t manage the poignant impact that is necessary for a story about such an urgent issue.
Two hundred pages is too few to set the scene of the Calais ‘jungle’ faithfully, and as a result it is difficult to connect emotionally with the characters or the setting. By attempting to confront the real and desperate world of life in the refugee camp, Puri was embarking upon a mammoth task, but her story and its vague plotline are ultimately neither convincing nor powerful enough to convey the emotions she is trying to evoke.
However, that is not to say that The Jungle is not a worthwhile or insightful read. Rather than merely observing the characters tackle various challenges, the reader is able to follow the ebb and flow of the characters’ hope and hopelessness. The novel is more concerned with the psyche of the characters it discusses than developing a plot, and its greatest merit is its discussion of a wide spectrum of characters with diverse backstories and cultures who share one common goal: to find a better life.
Puri details, for example, the toll brought about by living in squalor alone, whilst being viewed as inferior by society. This is represented allegorically by various characters – the introduction of Leila and her bright yellow bag, for example, marks the return of hope to Mico; when the same bag is dirtied we know that hope is lost again.
Perhaps one of the most unusual things about this novel is that it never reaches a climactic point. Mico meets the feisty female character Leila, and they dream about escaping, but to no avail. People leave the camp, but everyone seems so used to loss that it remains inconsequential. No one finishes the novel in a better position than when it began, which may be Puri’s intent. The reader is left with the feeling that the novel is just a snapshot, and that life at the camp will remain in stasis for ever.
The success of Puri’s novel lies in her ability to create individual identities for her characters. Their own nuances make a refreshing change from the usual depiction of this issue, where the blanket term ‘refugee’ all too frequently prevents us seeing the person behind the word.
The Jungle by Pooja Puri.
(Published by Black & White Publishing)
Image: Malachybrowne via Flickr.