The Jungle by Pooja Puri
Publisher: Ink Road
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This review is spoiler-free.
The Jungle was an interesting one for me. I’m not a big fan of contemporary YA, but I saw the subject matter and decided to read it:
There was a story Jahir used to tell me. About how the first humans were born with wings. Can you imagine what that would be like? To fly anywhere in the world without worrying about having the right papers?
Mico has left his family, his home, his future. Setting out in search of a better life, he instead finds himself navigating one of the world’s most inhospitable environments the Jungle. For Mico, just one of many ‘unaccompanied children’, the Calais refugee camp has a wildness, a brutality all of its own.
A melting pot of characters, cultures, and stories, the Jungle often seems like its own strange world. But despite his ambitions to escape, Mico is unable to buy his way out from the ‘Ghost Men’ the dangerous men with magic who can cross borders unnoticed. Alone, desperate, and running out of options, the idea of jumping onto a speeding train to the UK begins to feel worryingly appealing.
But when Leila arrives at the camp one day, everything starts to change. Outspoken, gutsy, and fearless, she shows Mico that hope and friendship can grow in the most unusual places, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll show you the way out as well.*
The Jungle is not a typical novel in that it doesn’t quite follow the familiar novel format. It doesn’t have a strong plot structure, it is more like opening a window into Mico’s life in Calais. We don’t see how he got there — although we do eventually learn why he left his home. Instead, it is more like a behind the scenes look at the news stories that dominated in the UK through 2015 and 2016. Mico goes about his day and interacts with other refugees who are trying to survive in one way or another, the ‘ghost men’ who haunt the camp and charge huge amounts of money to traffic refugees into the UK, and eventually with Leila. The story really blossoms as the two of them become friends — they get into all kinds of trouble, develop a bond, and share their hopes and fears. The Jungle doesn’t feel like it has a real beginning or end; it gives you the sense that this has been happening for long before the events of the book and will continue long after the last page is turned.
Characterization is tough for this book. I walked away feeling like I didn’t really know Leila or Mico as well as characters from other books. I know she is fierce and stubborn while he is cautious, yet lashes out when threatened, but I didn’t feel a deep connection or understanding of who they really are. I think this may have been due in part to the fact that The Jungle is quite a short book. I also think that that isn’t really what Puri was going for in writing this; you get a sense of the people and what they’re living through. In that sense, a deep understanding of their inner feelings isn’t really necessary, you need to see beyond the two of them in order to get the whole picture.
Puri’s writing style is wonderful and strong. She doesn’t shy away from issues like the poor quality of life that refugees suffer in these camps and the illegal immigration attempted by a few of them. While the book didn’t quite resonate with me — again, contemporary isn’t quite my thing — I do think that this is an important book to read despite your age or political leanings.
The Jungle offers a brief snapshot of what life is like for whose who have been forced from their home and the other side of the refugee crisis that we in Europe don’t necessarily see beyond our TV screens.
*Copy courtesy of Goodreads