Against all odds

15th April 2005 at 01:00
The Heaven Shop

By Deborah Ellis

Oxford University Press pound;4.99

Playing with Fire

By Henning Mankell, Allen Unwin pound;5.99

The Ice Road

By Jaap ter Haar, Barn Owl Books pound;5.99

Soraya the Storyteller

By Rosanne Hawke, illustrated by Neil Curtis, Lothian Books pound;3.99

Warrior Girl

By Pauline Chandler

Oxford University Press pound;5.99

Deborah Ellis's first novel, The Breadwinner, was set in Afghanistan under the Taliban. In The Heaven Shop, set in Malawi, the life of an ordinary family is shattered - not by warfare, but by the devastating effects of Aids. When the story opens, Binti is pardonably proud of her part in a radio drama aimed at raising public consciousness about the pandemic. But when her mother, then her father, die of "Slim", the family furiously denies it, knowing how people will react.

At the mercy of rapacious and ignorant relatives, the children are split up and exploited, until Binti sets out to find her grandmother, who has assembled a new family of Aids orphans and gives Binti the stability to be reunited with her brother, and a sister who has been driven to prostitution and, inevitably, HIV. There is a happy ending with a considerable sting in it. The family business was coffin-making. The children start it up again on their own initiative. They will never be short of customers.

Mozambique is at peace now, but lives with the legacy of war and is engaged in a new battle against Aids. Sofia, in Playing With Fire, lost both legs when she stepped on the landmine that killed her sister. Another sister, beautiful Rosa, is unaccountably declining towards death, watched by her helpless family. Conventional medicine would help, but Mozambicans can't afford it. The witchdoctor takes their money and claims to drive out evil spirits. The villagers, with a relaxed attitude to sexual encounters, do not regard Aids as shameful, but only the educated ones, such as Sofia - dragging herself miles to school on crutches - know it is preventable.

Adversity makes her a fighter: she successfully leads a protest against a land-grabbing crook; she will become a doctor; she will love and be loved, in spite of her infirmity.

This warm, affectionate story is uncompromisingly direct and often funny.

It ends, like The Heaven Shop, with an author's note about Aids. Both books should deliver a few home truths to readers in a country complacently inert about its pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases.

The Ice Road was the passage across frozen Lake Ladoga, along which convoys of lorries brought supplies to the besieged city of Leningrad. Boris's father drowned when his truck went through the ice and nothing will persuade Boris to risk evacuation by the same route. Life is reduced to little more than a constant quest for food and on one such foray he and his friend Nadia stray into enemy lines. To their astonishment, the German soldiers risk their lives to take them home and this memory inspires Boris to a gesture of generosity when the Red Army arrives to turn the tables.

This is a short, affecting novel about people preserving their humanity under inhuman conditions.

Nadia kept a diary and so does Soraya the Storyteller, who has escaped from Afghanistan with the remnants of her family, entering Australia as an illegal immigrant. Her teacher persuades her to write her own story and gradually, as Soraya settles in and makes friends, we learn of the events which brought her to what may be a short-lived refuge. The polemic is aimed at Australian attitudes to asylum-seekers, but it ought to strike a chord with British readers. Here, too, we meet nice, ordinary people asking only for the chance to be ordinary again.

The story of Joan of Arc is so improbable that it is hard to believe it actually happened. Warrior Girl reminds us how normal she was, until she began hearing the voices that directed her to lead an army against the English and set the Dauphin on the throne. As described by her cousin Mariane, Joan (here called Jehanne) is as bewildered as anyone by whatever it is that drives her. Mariane's own story is equally involving, but on a more personal level and, in following her own interests, she and we lose touch with Jehanne at what would have been the most dramatic moment.

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