(Telegram Books, 2022)
Reviewed by Maame Blue
‘Well, it’s life, isn’t it, history,’ he said. ‘It’s everything except the future, and you can’t learn that.’
In Maggie Gee’s The Red Children, the past is ever-present. It is life now, as we know it, or would if the ‘migrant crisis’ were seen for what it is – people being forced to search for new homes because the old ones are being destroyed by other people claiming ‘progress’. And also if those migrants were a 40,000-year-old indigenous community.
Gee’s approach to these conditions – migration, discrimination, global warming and an ongoing pandemic – isn’t macabre or defeatist; it’s humorous, light-hearted and cutting when it needs to be. The narrator is astute, never quite revealed to the reader, but always watching and speaking through an array of voices with varying points of view on the new arrivals – from the crows to the local ‘nationalists group’ comically named ‘Put Britain First’. The irony, of course, is that the story of The Red Children does just that – it centres Britain with all its foibles and self-doubt and irrational thinking, delivered along with hilarious dialogue by a seaside community in Ramsgate, Kent.
‘Two Red children have arrived.’
‘It was on TV, Winston. They turned up in the harbour.’
‘Oh yes. Really? Here? Have we had the MF20s?’
‘Documentation of application for refugee status?’
‘Oh dear. I suppose I can talk to the parents and explain we’re selective –’
‘The parents aren’t here.’
A long, liberal sigh.
As the town welcomes these new visitors, we get a front row seat, particularly on the white people of Ramsgate grappling with their prejudices and what the ‘right thing’ is to do about these unusual new arrivals. The pandemic is ever present, too, and though never named specifically as Covid-19, its ramifications have rippled through the town as in the rest of Britain, taking more men than women and very far from being done with us. This is juxtaposed to the growing impact of climate change, and sometimes the story cuts so close to the bone that it starts to sting.
“As Britain warmed up in the twenty-first century, cities were like ovens, while chilly coastal resorts gained weeks of sunshine. Now only February and March were cold. More city dwellers moved down, then the waves of virus sent even more, people who could work from home and wanted to escape the hot, germy cages of London.”
Despite the dystopian elements, The Red Children reads more like contemporary life, especially in the last years since Covid-19 reared its ugly head. Only it doesn’t drag you into the dark depths of the now, to remind you of all the bad things we’ve been through. If anything, it quips at the failings of society thus far and then offers something new, but very old, too – hope for a better world than the one we have now.
Maame Blue is a Ghanaian-Londoner and author of the novel Bad Love, which won a 2021 Betty Trask award. https://maamebluewrites.com