No Man’s Land is a bitingly clever speculative fiction that flips the perspective of books like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit which feature living under the rule of fascism and fleeing as a historical distant ‘other’, or those about a modern refugee children coming to Britain as a socio-cultural ‘other’ instead here in Joanna Nadin’s No Man’s Land it becomes a relevant, resonant and recognisable us as refugee.
Much like the Save The Children advert that posited a white British girl fleeing a war torn Britain, to challenge the ‘othering’ narrative attached to many refugee crises, No Man’s Land shows a ten year old boy who whilst doesn’t face bombs and risk of drowning, has to leave Albion as it counts down to war but he doesn’t understand why.
When Alan’s teacher and the class mural to Rosa Parks disappears, Alan’s dad makes a phonecall that changes everything. In the dead of night Dad, Alan and his 5 year old brother Sam roll out of the driveway and onto the motorway towards the Albion border with Kernow. Shuffled onto a boat of women, Dad says he will be with them soon, by Alan’s 11th birthday this August.
Alan feels out of place with no friends and suspicious of this community of women and misfits he has been dumped into and is shocked at how brazen these women and girls are going about unchaperoned and meeting together, things that are banned in Albion. He just wants to go home, especially when he finds out Albion is counting down to war.
‘Villains don’t always go round cackling madly and flashing their tattoos. They come in pretending to be your friend and promising you stuff so you’re tricked into thinking they’re the good ones after all.’Alan
Here in the UK, there is a sort of mythic nostalgia around World War II, romanticising what as closer study or honest testimony reveals to be far from glorious to have lived through whether in service or as a civilian. Even more so the myth of Britain standing alone perpetuates as harmfully as Manifest Destiny in the USA, that Britain stood alone against fascism implying specialhood and a ‘betterness’ regardless of the courage, the contributions and support not merely by the Empire and Commonwealth but of multinational Resistance, volunteering of refugees and rebels such as the Polish airforce.
But most of all it created this sense that ‘we’ were better than those who had fallen to Nazi propaganda and hate, and the special brand of British NIMBYism applied to radicalisation too.
No Man’s Land blows all that out of the water in the most throat-constricting but empathetic way as it is speculative fiction of a near-contemporary Britain which has fallen to Far-Right fascism and has splintered into independent nations regionally.
This Albion is starkly reminiscent of the social changes in 1930s Germany with disappearing teachers, a canon of accepted curriculum and the dire consequences of being different prior to the outbreak of War but also, more frighteningly so, is recognisable in aspects of current British society with its ‘sovereignty’ isolationism from the EU, a ‘special’ relationship with America, fake news and emboldened racists acting on stirred up furies targeted at ‘the other’ from the lies, spin and manipulations of those that this hatred benefits.
It’s a bleak vision of scarily potential future. But Joanna tempers this warning with the Middle grade touch of kindness and tenderness that shows empathy to those struggling under this system; that so many are victims too.
Some victimised by their own hand and choices, some echoing Martin Niemöller’s ‘First they came” sentiment by their fear or conviction that it will blow over, many more who unknowingly ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ without even realising it because of the way policies are posited; ‘Jobs for All!’ or family values until those policies crash down their own door becoming ‘others’ like Laura, Leon and more victims because they are simply different.
We feel empathy for Alan as a refugee; Nadin interprets the experience in Al through his sense of loss and disorientation in this world that doesn’t follow the rules he is used to, where there are no other boys his age, and where males are treated with suspicion, he feels alone, angry and disenfranchised and just wants everything to go back to ‘normal’. By shifting the narrative to a British boy, in a situation where his male white privilege has no benefit or power and the loss he feels from that, its a very powerful perspective shift for many young British readers, especially if they have the social power and privilege of children like Alan, Sam and even Paris at the start of the book.
There is much opportunity for empathy, but never more so in how Alan faces an internal crisis that the world he has grown up in is fundamentally wrong, and has damaged his thinking. Whilst he considers himself a good person, he falls into the trap of associating that with his National identity and doesn’t realise the way he has been trained to comply until he is confronted with a world that challenges those values head on. This internal struggle is one that many children will face when they find their internal moral compass to find its north in a different direction to those around them, whether that be friends, family or society itself, and to recognise the agony that it is to question everything you know and admit and accept rather than doubling down in shame.
Reading this book alongside the chaos in the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a sobering experience.
If you read one book to challenge yourself this autumn, make it this one, challenge the MSM cries of wokeness – and there will be those who declaim those book as such- or peddling lies obscufating the sleepwalking into right wing fascism, let us wake up before Alan’s Albion is our reality.
No Man’s Land by Joanna Nadin is published by uclan Publishing
Thank you for my copy 💜