Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán – Mike Robbins

We need to talk about this baggage!

I read this twice; the first time I got a little side-tracked by the story within a story – the book written by Tom; back to him later. The second time though, I read for the sheer pleasure of the South American descriptions, the happy coincidences, and the satisfaction of knowing that everything turned out just as it should, much like it does in a Kate Atkinson novel. The violence, rape, hypocrisy, poverty, drugs, and plain meanness of this world are not spared us. The reality is that refugees are refugees for a reason – and these reasons frequently have their origin in the habits and behaviours of those of us in “developed” countries. Robbins doesn’t hesitate to point this out, and the message is even more timely and relevant today than it was back in the early 1990’s when this book was originally written.

This is the story of Silvia, a refugee from an unnamed South American country who winds up in London after her father is murdered. Her story is every refugee’s: one of  fear, confusion, and a life in limbo. Today the British government (and several others, noticeably Australia’s) would most likely shove her into a detention camp to suffer humiliation for an unknown length of time. In our novel, Silvia is taken up by Harriet and Tom, wealthy and hypocritical “do-gooders” who see the chance of a free “au-pair” to look after their young son. Through carefully constructed flash-backs we learn Silvia’s story. The vibrant descriptions of her life back home transport us to South America. Robbin’s skill takes us immediately and vividly into her home and her life, the car journeys with her family, the terrifying bus trip to escape the murderous military. His acute sense of place is no less effective when describing London locations and characters. Tom is the anti-hero, an egotistical writer so wrapped up in himself and his work that he utterly fails to notice in Silvia the intelligence and talent that she possesses in vastly superior quantities to his own. My only criticism is that although I understand the desired irony of the story within a story, I would have preferred a stronger focus on Silvia’s world (in all aspects), and a different way to point out Tom’s less than stellar qualities.

In his introduction Robbin’s points out that “any book is of its time and is best left there.” I beg to differ – the issue of refugees is, if anything, even more relevant today. I would like to see this book, with a bit of work, possibly longer, republished. These are issues that we all need to be talking about.