Thursday, 2 September 2010
Review: Trash by Andy Mulligan
Raphael is a dumpsite boy. He spends his days wading through mountains of steaming trash, sifting it, sorting it, breathing it, sleeping next to it. Then one unlucky-lucky day, Raphael's world turns upside down. A small leather bag falls into his hands. It's a bag of clues. It's a bag of hope. It's a bag that will change everything. Soon Raphael and his friends Gardo and Rat are running for their lives. Wanted by the police, it takes all their quick-thinking, fast-talking to stay ahead. As the net tightens, they uncover a dead man's mission to put right a terrible wrong. It's three street-boys against the world...
Every now and then a book sneaks up on the unsuspecting public, with very little fanfare, and hits you where it hurts the most - in the heart. Trash is one such book. It has its own Facebook page, and yet currently only 82 people 'like' it. I have a feeling this number will grow rapidly once it gets into the hands of children (and adults) following its official release date (which just happens to be today). This book is a mystery story for Young Adults, that is both funny and deeply moving in equal measures.
The story reveolves around the life of Raphael, a fourteen year old who lives on the Behala dumpsite - a mountainous heap of rubbish from the nearby city that has built up over time. Raphael and his friend Gardo (and hundreds of other kids) spend their days 'working', i.e. scrambling over this landscape of trash in search for items that may make them a little cash. And we're not talking items that you or I would consider valuable ir saleable as we sit in our comfy homes, we are talking pieces of plastic ("white plastic is the best"), paper, tin cans, bottles, bits of cloth.... yes, exactly the sort of things we would classify as trash. But to these boys good trash means cash. Of course this also means that half the time they are wading through (and picking up) what they refer to as stuppa, and what we would refer to as (in polite conversation) human muck.
One day Raphael spots a 'special' - a bag of trash from one of the rich areas in the city - and within it a small leather bag containing a wallet (complete with eleven hundred pesos), a map and a mysterious key. Within hours the police are driving through the gates of Behala and it is obvious to the boys what they are after, even going as far as to offer a huge monetary reward for its discovery/return, although Raphael decides to keep his discovery quiet for reasons he himself is not entirely sure of - mistrust? a greater reward in a few days time? Very soon Raphael and Gardo, joined by Jun-Jun (aptly nicknamed Rat) find themselves on an exciting, and very perilous hunt for the truth behind the key they have found and why it is so precious to the police and their superiors.
Trash had me captivated from the very first chapter, but I cannot put my finger on why it appealed to me so much. If I had to liken it to any other book I guess the closest comparison would be the fantastic Holes by Louis Sachar. Like Trash, Holes is humorous and poignant, and also very thought-provoking. And believe me, Trash makes you think a lot - about the day-to-day life these boys lead, the way the police use brutality to get what they want, the luxury that a few wealthy (and corrupt) politicians live in whilst all around them there is poverty, and the way that charity aid from countries such as the UK can so easily be misappropriated by these corrupt individuals.
This story is a great social commentary without ever seeming moralistic, and I think this is aided by the story telling device of multiple narrators that Andy Mulligan uses. For the first few chapters the story is narrated in the first person by Raphael, before shifting over to Gardo, and then flitting between them and a variety of other characters as the plot progresses, including Father Juilliard who runs the Mission School on the Behala dumpsite, and his volunteer assistant, the naive Olivia Weston. I felt that this swapping of the narration between different characters with very different personalities made the story feel even more real for me, almost as if they had been giving informal witness statements. At no point did I find it confusing, although this is helped by each character announcing themselves at the beginning of each of their chapters.
I read this book on a plane as I was flying off to Menorca for a week's holiday and as such had no way of googling place names such as Behala. Having seen documentaries on the TV about such places I then spent the next week assuming that it was a real place, probably in somwhere like Mexico or the Philippines. On my return a quick search showed that in name at least there is no such place as the Behala dumpsite, yet it is similar to many such places in Less Developed Countries. A further search revealed that Andy Mulligan has travelled a lot in the Phillippines and the vividness of his descriptions of Behala would suggest that he spent some time visiting one or more of these massive dumpsites. This story is very much about people, and yet at the same time I had a very clear picture of this place in my mind - I 'knew' how it looked, smelt and, rather disgustingly, felt - and Mr Mulligan managed this without any lengthy passages that detracted from the plot.
Holes has been a popular class reader in schools across the country over recent years, and I would not be surprised if Trash is in a similar position in a couple of years time. There is so much about the various characters and the society in which they live that can be gleaned from this story, and it is sure to provoke many a lively discussion in classrooms; it is certainly suitable for the 11+ age range. My thanks go to the generous people at David Fickling Books for sending me a copy to read and review.