From the outset, it’s obvious that this book defies definition. It starts with a quotation from the UN report on accountability in Sri Lanka, noting that ‘All Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were detained in closed camps … breaching the basic social and economic rights of the detainees’. How can a children’s book speak to a subject as dark as civil war, internment and the corrupt face of post-war reconstruction?
The answer, it quickly becomes apparent, is through the use of satire and allegory. The deeply ironic narrative is set on the Island of Short Memories, where the Boy who Speaks in Numbers lives. The Civil War of Lies wreaks havoc on his home – the Small Village of Fat Hopes – and he finds himself taken to Kettle Camp as an Internally Displaced Person. Or is he an Ignorant Disillusioned Person? Or maybe eventually one of the Ignorant Deceived People who survived the war?
In the course of the story, meet The Constantly Complaining Cow, the Kind Uncle, the Lying Lizard from the Ministry of Internal Revisions, the Little Tin Soldiers and Aunty, the camp commander whose face erupts into pimples whenever she is asked questions. She is responsible for creating White Van Widows a result of regular Ever Reducing Rollcalls, yet even Aunty is human, descending into the darkness and confusion of mental illness when her own son is killed.
This book achieves the seemingly impossible. It views ugly issues through the eyes of a child who, while retaining his naivety and his steadfast security in the stability of numbers, reflects terrors that he does not fully comprehend but which the reader can access at whatever their own point of understanding.
In the camp is an ugly tree which flowers with difficult questions: Does war make an orphan of hope? Is truth a refugee? Is war a wholesale business? But as the Kind Uncle once told the Boy, however awkward the questions, it’s still important to ask them. This is a book which will provoke challenging questions in the mind of the reader, but one which should nevertheless be available to KS3 pupils.