Monday, 27 January 2014

Under the Skin, Catherine MacPhail

Omar and his family have fled their war-torn home country and come to the UK to seek asylum and to find a safe place to live.  Writing letters to his cousin back home, Omar describes their penthouse, his best friend Sam and his excellent prospects in the UK.  The reality is that Omar and his family live in a flat on the top floor of an immense tower block and are subjected to daily abuse by their neighbours and Sam, a boy from school that lives a few floors below- but he doesn't want his cousin to think he isn't happy.  When Omar suddenly comes into possession of a secret that could ruin and humiliate his nemesis, he must make a decision- does he do the right thing and keep quiet?  Or reveal his secret and get Sam off his case.

Under the Skin is a short book, so there is little opportunity for a great deal of character development. However, the characters are pretty easy to understand, without being one dimensional.  Omar is obviously from a country in conflict, he describes how his father was tortured and his family persecuted and how much he loves being in Britain where they don't shoot at you.  He's glad to be in the country, even if he is a bit lonely and it's clear that he really wants to make it work.  He stands up for himself (sometimes physically or violently) but has a good sense of right and wrong despite being wronged himself, which pays off in the end.

It's a short, easy to read book that manages to tell quite a complex story in a ways that's easy to understand. Omar speaks in broken English, which means he keeps it fairly straightforward and he frequently expresses his confusion about some of the sayings and idioms in the English language but on the whole considers English to be a wonderful language. The narrative is broken up by letters from Omar to his cousin, which establishes a bit of a contrast between Omar's reality and what he's writing in his letters.   He creates a good sense of what it must be like to live in exile- the prejudice that he suffers and what it is like to be displaced.  It's a story about taking the moral high ground, seeing things from other perspectives and perseverance.  It reminds the reader that nothing happens overnight and friendships have to be worked at, and new starts do not happen all at once.

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