Errant boys have been running through our nation’s best novels for a long time. Hemingway famously declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’,” and whether you agree with that or not, boys — and men who still act like them — demand a lot of attention in our canon. But this summer, the kids lighting out for the territory come from Africa and the Middle East, and their journeys will take you somewhere entirely different.
Enaiatollah Akbari was just 10 years old when his Afghani mother sneaked him into the busy city of Quetta, Pakistan, and abandoned him in 2000. Cruel as that sounds, it was an act of love by a woman desperate to protect her elder son from Pashtun gang members and the Taliban, who had already shot his teacher and closed their village school. “The thing is, I really wasn’t expecting her to go,” Akbari says at the opening of In the Sea There Are Crocodiles (Doubleday, $22.95). This gripping, strangely sweet tale is labeled “a novel,” but it’s essentially the memoir of a lost boy tossed from country to country for five years before finding sanctuary in Italy. There, a journalist named Fabio Geda befriended Akbari and won permission to write down his story.
This English translation by Howard Curtis captures the young man’s open-hearted tone just right as he describes waking up in a Pakistani city where he knows no one and can’t speak the language: “One thing I wanted to avoid (one among many others, like dying) was people taking advantage of me.” That’s a full-time job as he searches for work, something to eat and a place to sleep. “Patience has its limits even when you’re a child no taller than a goat,” he says. “I was feed for the hens.” But he’s also a model of optimism and industriousness. Running messages and selling snacks, he gradually makes friends with other street kids and saves enough money to pay traffickers to smuggle him into Iran — twice! — where good jobs supposedly await. “Destination and destiny are very similar, aren’t they?” he asks. Reading of Akbari’s efforts to find a better life — alone and at an age when children in our country can’t even drive yet — will leave you shaken, but his resilient joy leavens the story even when he’s toiling for 90 hours a week at dangerous work in a locked warehouse, crossing the snow-covered mountains from Iran to Turkey on foot, or hiding in the false bottom of a truck “like grains of rice squeezed in someone’s hand.” The lovely rapport between Akbari and Geda comes across now and then when the journalist interrupts to prod him for more detail, gently reminding him just how extraordinary his experience is.
Anatomy of a Disappearance (Dial, $22) presents an entirely different story of a young man on his own: a boy of privilege set adrift by political intrigue. Libyan writer Hisham Matar won international acclaim with his poetic first novel, “In the Country of Men,” and once again he draws on his family’s terror under the reign of Moammar Gaddafi to tell the harrowing tale of a son deprived of his parents. The tone here is melancholy and steeped in regret as the narrator recalls himself as a lonely 12-year-old, grieving for the death of his mother, pining for his father’s affection and attracted to his flirtatious new stepmother. “You like to watch me, don’t you,” she teases, long after she should have stopped. Matar is an elegant writer who subtly evokes all the sexual tension between this young Englishwoman and her stepson beset by “deliberate and shameful self-delusion.” But when his father, a close adviser of the deposed Egyptian king, is “disappeared” by political opponents, the Oedipal nightmare reaches a grim climax. Though money and safety aren’t a problem — the young narrator is the heir to a 600-year-old silk fortune — he finds himself unmoored, searching for an answer to the “ambiguous loss” of his dad. “I felt guilty,” he writes, “at having lost him, at not knowing how to find him or take his place. Every day I let my father down.” Caught between unanswered longing and unresolved grief, he’s never able to love anyone again. The resolution is too sudden and revelatory, but “Anatomy of a Disappearance” remains a haunting novel, exquisitely written and psychologically rich.
A few years after he published his great novel “Things Fall Apart,” the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe composed a children’s story called Chike and the River (Anchor; paperback, $10), and this month it’s being released for the first time in the United States. It’s a handsome paperback edition “for all ages” with woodcut illustrations by Edel Rodriguez, but Achebe’s reputation and a blurb from Toni Morrison will likely bring this slight book more attention than it deserves now. Laced with elements of a parable, the story about 11-year-old Chike trying to earn money for a trip across the River Niger is not charming or perilous enough to hold the attention of most young people or adults.
But charm and peril are on full display in Stephen Kelman’s first novel, which is in the running for this year’s Booker Prize. Pigeon English (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24) is based on the true tale of a 10-year-old Nigerian who was murdered in London in 2000 by other boys just a few years older. That death sentence hangs at the end of this story, but Kelman writes in such a buoyant, delightful voice that you’ll want to forget where the novel is headed, despite some ominous reminders along the way. In a narrative that jumps and darts like its young narrator in a new pair of “trainers,” Harrison Opuku tells us about anything that comes to mind, from all the crazy new English words he’s learning to the “dope-fine” model cars he collects in his room in a London housing project. But throughout, he struggles to make sense of the senseless violence around him.
When the story opens, Harrison and another seventh-grader are staring at the blood left by an older boy who was murdered for his chicken dinner. “You wanted to touch it,” he admits, “but you couldn’t get close enough.” Inspired by the TV show “CSI,” Harrison and his friend decide to solve the murder, searching for DNA (“just a load of colours”), interviewing suspects, and watching the crime scene through plastic binoculars. “We’re proper detectives now,” Harrison says. “It’s a personal mission.” But he’d also like to try sleeping in the washing machine and cramming four jawbreakers into his mouth. That mixture of ridiculous observations and accidental insights makes “Pigeon English” continually surprising and endearing. (“Have you heard of YouTube? It’s a place on the internet just for films of things eating each other.”) Whether he’s explaining the rules of farting or the tragedy of gang killings, there’s a sweetness here that’s irresistible.
It’s a shame, though, that Kelman didn’t resist adding a touch of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” Several chapters open with the italicized voice of Harrison’s pet pigeon, a birdbrain who tweets out portentous lines like, “We live and breathe within the boundaries of our charges; we reach out for them when the bridge between them and their god is blocked.” Fly away, you winged rat, and let us enjoy Harrison just a little while longer.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.