“And in the end, we are all looking for the same place: somewhere to call home. Home is somewhere we know, somewhere we trust. … Home is where your heart is, home is where you rest your head, home is where you never feel alone. For me, there is no place to call home; nowhere that I belong.”
At the centre of this book is a family: Papa, Mami, Jean and Marie—refugees who left Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo to try and build a better life in London. It centres mostly around Jean and his attempts to fit in, but also tells the story of Papa and Mami.
Jean becomes friendly with James, a young tearaway whose parents quite clearly neglect him. Jean looks up to the young English boy and admires his bravado. The friendship suffers when Jean decides to pay attention to his studies and leaves the cool, I-don’t-really-care gang to join the studious, uncool gang. But after everything they have been through together, the two boys never really lose their bond.
We also learn about Papa, and how he fell in love with Mami in Kinshasa the first time he sees her: “and the person inside him who was always running away stood still”. But Papa is sent by his father, Koko Patrice, to study in Brussels. He meets Mami again a few years after, and they resume their relationship. Mami becomes pregnant and is thrown out by her father. Papa returns from Brussels to take care of her. They manage to save enough money for him to return to finish his studies.
The DRC is under the rule of a dictator, Le Marechal. J.J. Bola’s observation about the dictator and the way his supporters are taken in by him is so universal. “They swallowed his promises, his vacuous and empty promises, like poison to the thirsty, fed to them like starving children with no food. Promises are made when intentions are not honoured; be wary of the man who feeds you promises.”
Under his rule, Kinshasa is becoming unsafe. The soldiers of Le Marechal, les soldats, are killing and looting. Papa talks Mami, now pregnant with Marie, into leaving.
No Place to Call Home is about trying to create a home in spite of the constant uncertainty of someone else making the decisions about your future. Mami opens her home to others looking for shelter: Tonton (uncle in French), the flamboyant man who moves in with them, and Madeline, her daughter Christelle and the child Glody, whom Mami takes in because they have nowhere else to go.
This is such a rich book: it is a coming-of-age story, it is about the obstacles refugees face in their so-called land of refuge, and the unimaginable wounds people carry deep inside them. Papa tries to throw Tonton out after another night where he turned up dead drunk. But Tonton has his pain too, a pain he tries to forget but cannot. When he tells Papa his story, “these two men like giant rocks worn down by tears” weep. Tonton had kept his story to himself, “not out of a façade or to maintain an appearance, it was because…Tonton did not want anyone else to carry the extra weight he too carried.”
Bola writes beautifully: he is also a poet, and it shows. On one of his visits to James, Jean finds out that his strong friend is really a lost, unhappy child. James’s father is a violent drunk. James climbs onto the balcony ledge and sits there, feet dangling over the edge, saying over and over again that he was so tired. Jean is terrified that his friend will let himself fall. “The night had darkened: the only remaining light was the dim moon in the sky, and the brightness of inextinguishable hope still shining in their eyes. Time was lost on them, it did not exist for moments such as this; there was no rush, no slowing down, everything was frozen, silent still. The world did not watch, but it waited; no flowers bloomed, no breeze blew, no clouds passed. James got down. Time started once again.”
What I loved about this book was the perception and empathy—everyone has a story if you look close enough. I can’t recommend it enough.