This is the most wonderful story of survival, courage, and a developing friendship between two very different girls, set in a run-down housing estate in Glasgow. The story is told in short chapters, alternating between the voices of Caylin and Reema, and occasionally interspersed with the poetic thoughts of an injured mother fox and she desperately seeks to raise and protect her cubs. This interesting structure only increased the majestic beauty of this book for me, with the fox seeming to be a metaphor for Caylin and Reema’s search for “home”.
When you first meet Caylin Todd at the start of the book, she seems to be the most unsympathetic character imaginable as she plots, and then carries out, an ambush on a classmate to steal her birthday money. However, you soon learn that Caylin’s single mum has become an alcoholic, following the death of Caylin’s grandfather, and with the benefits payment being consumed by vodka, Caylin must either steal or starve. The descriptions of Caylin’s chaotic homelife are so realistically heartbreaking, and her terror that she will be separated from her mum if anyone should find out, force you to be sympathetic towards her.
Reema is also from a broken family. In her case she has had to flee from her comfortable, middle-class life in Aleppo and has arrived in Glasgow, with part of her family as a refugee. She is struggling to overcome trauma, homesickness, the disappearance of her beloved older brother and the sight of her once strong father confined to a wheelchair following a poison gas attack, when she is re-housed in the same block of flats as Caylin.
The two girls take an instant dislike to each other, Reema is horrified when she spots Caylin shop-lifting and Caylin dislikes the feeling that she is being judged by the new girl. However, as both girls are moved by the plight of an injured mother fox, hiding out behind the bins, and a shared talent for running, a hesitant friendship begins to develop. Can Caylin open herself up to trust, and can Reema overcome her homesickness for Syria and embrace her new surroundings? You will have to read this incredible story to find out.
I loved many aspects of this book. Firstly, Victoria Williamson is an astonishingly good writer, her descriptions of the struggles faced by the two protagonists take you right inside their hopes and fears and open your eyes to the very difficult lives that so many children face. Woven over the “issues” is a terrific story of a developing friendship, and by the final chapters I was on the edge of my seat and breathless to find out how the various strands of the narrative would end. I think that the story of Caylin and Reema will stay with me for a long time. Finally, I read that 20% of the author royalties for this novel will be donated to the Scottish Refugee Council, so not only are you buying a great book, but you are helping those less fortunate than yourself too. I would rate this book as a “must-have” for all Upper KS2 classrooms, school libraries and read-for-empathy lists.
If you love this book, why not try The Boy at the Back of the Class?