Peace and Conflict by Irene Sabatini
Publishing date: November 6th 2014
Verdict: 4 stars
Recommend: Adults and older teens with a taste of a Zimbabwean culture.
The story of a young boy's adventures as he takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of an 'evil' old neighbour in Geneva, and a missing auntie in Zimbabwe. Charming, funny and resonant, this is a novel about how one boy comes to understand what conflict can do to a person, a family, a whole country - and what it means to fight for peace.
It’s a fresh breath of Zimbabwean air, breathed through a ten year old boy growing up in Geneva, Switzerland... that’s a slightly confusing metaphor. What I mean is that it struck me as unique in more ways than one.
We see the world through Robert, a ten year old boy with an inquisitive mind. I’ve forced myself through books before which use the narrative to reflect a child's stream of consciousness and found the situation akin to a hyperactive child yapping in your ear non-stop for hours on end. Sabatini thankfully avoids this. She writes in an engaging and thought-provoking prose that captivated me into Robert's world rather than held me captive.
The dynamics between Robert and his neighbour Monsieur Renoir is very curious indeed. Initially Robert is shouted at by the old man, but soon finds himself asking for help concerning his Aunt who is imprisoned by Mugabe, and the reaction he gets is confusing: a medal placed on his doorstep. What could it mean? After that introduction, we don't see much of the crazy neighbour. There's more chatter about the neighbour than actually with him, and I think a bit more interaction between the two was what I couldn't help but want. Still, this book has a lot going for it.
I loved learning about the Zimbabwe culture. Tsoro, the Mau Mau uprising, and even some elephant facts – I finished this book feeling a little more enriched than when I picked it up. I possibly missed out a little due to lacking knowledge on the general subject, but I still learned a lot without feeling like I was in a history lesson. Instead it felt real and interesting, and I cared so much about the Robert’s brave and intelligent Aunt, his try-hard 'cool' brother, and the intriguingly crazy man next door that I gladly learned through Robert’s ten year old but inquisitive mind..
Sometimes we know better than Robert, and I personally love it when a character’s perspective differs from my own. When any writer manages to suggest something without the narrator understanding, from naivety in this case, it always connects with something inside of me. But adults don’t always know better. Older doesn’t always mean wiser. Robert asks the questions that the adults have forgotten about, and again I felt engaged. This book will definitely make you think about just how difficult a simple questions can be.
Now for the reason why I had to give it four stars instead of five. I definitely felt this book could be shorter. Some sections were ramblings of a child or character driven sections. While those bits were very, ehem, nice, they just weren’t thrilling. I keep reading without feeling particularly bored or entertained. I didn’t always understand the characters motives, or how Robert made massive inferences - which happened to be spot on - when I couldn’t see much evidence. I went with it and enjoyed the novel, but couldn’t help but question some of what happened.
My other minor qualm was over the genre. I asked for a review copy from NetGalley.com after enjoying the blurb and seeing that it was a young adult novel. After having read it, I’m a little confused. It’s narrated by a child in a much more entertaining and coherent fashion than others who have done so before, but this definitely appealed to the grown up side of me far more than my youthful, and if I was given it five years ago, I probably would have cast it aside, failing to understand it for what it is.
I’m not saying all young adults will be unappreciative of this novel, but it is far more a literary fiction than a story for teens. Just because the narrator is young doesn't mean it has youth appeal.
What I will say is that for a young adult who wants something outside their usual genre, something unusual, something where they can learn a bit about another culture without feeling too far from their own, then give it a go. But it’s not typical YA fiction in my mind – more like a side effect of a good narrator.