Madina is 15, attending school in Germany. In history, her class is learning about the Second World War. The teacher shows photos of ‘mountains of corpses and hanging bodies’. She talks of prisoners herded like cattle into gas chambers. Madina puts her hand up: ‘I’ve also seen how people are killed. Back home.’ Far away, day after day, she’d gone out after ‘a torrent of bombs’ to help gather bodies for burial, ‘so they could finally depart this world’. One of her classmates tells her to ‘Save your horror stories’, but another says, ‘Madina’s right’. That moment foreshadows many others throughout this powerful story; so often, it’s Me, In Between.
Her family are refugees. Where they’re from, she tells us in the novel’s first paragraph, ‘doesn’t matter. It could be anywhere.’ There’s a single mention of the hijab and the traditional values of Madina’s family are important; but in many ways this award-winning book is universal, of even greater relevance now than when it was first published in Germany in 2016. We meet the family in an overcrowded boarding house, waiting anxiously for news of their application for asylum; ‘family’ means Dad, Mum, Madina, seven-year-old brother Rami, and silent, hostile Aunt Amina.
Only Madina has a growing competence in German, so she must translate for everyone – from shopping to form-filling. Only Madina makes friends, including best friend Laura and, tentatively, Laura’s brother Markus. Only Madina begins to enjoy the possible freedoms of Western European life. Laura’s friendly Mum gives Madina a diary, and through frequent entries Madina explores her shifting relationship with Laura. Madina’s self-awareness is acute and serious, beyond the humour or clichés of some school-set YA plots. The contrasts between past and present, between the cultures of home and school, are profound. The insights she offers may well reflect those of many Madinas who now find themselves in Western Europe.
There is no melodrama. Day-to-day life is enough to throw up clashes between the values of Madina’s family (especially her father’s) and the society they have struggled so hard to join. Dad’s a proud man, a medic whose even-handed attempts back home to treat friend or foe left him on the Wanted List – hence the imperative to escape. His commitment to his culture’s traditional notion of fatherhood means that when Madina is desperate to go to Laura’s 15th birthday party, he insists that 7-year-old Rami, as the family’s second male, is also invited to protect her in such a dangerous environment. Trapped and bewildered between old and new, Dad’s frustrations erupt in violence at the school gate and social workers and counsellors become involved. The family’s asylum application is in jeopardy.
It may well be that translator Claire Storey’s skilful idiom plays a considerable part in making this challenging story readily accessible to UK readers. Unless they have direct knowledge of immigrant experience, they will surely learn much about what ‘not belonging’ feels like for someone around their own age; living in confined, even squalid circumstances, with very limited cash, no support from an extended family, maybe with the threat of being returned to the chaos of a war zone. Perhaps, like Madina, it may even mean watching the parents they have loved and trusted disintegrating in front of them.
The novel’s ending offers hope but, at the same time, anxiety and loss.
Maybe well worth considering for a School Book Group, and certainly for recommendation to individual readers.