Home and Away
written by John Marsden, illustrated by Matt Ottley
(Lothian Children’s Books, 2008)
The definite scribbling out of the word “Home” in the title of this extraordinary collaboration between author John Marsden and illustrator Matt Ottley provides a frisson of disquiet before the narrative even opens: that, and the equally disturbing cover illustration of a child imprisoned behind a high wire enclosure. Yet the story opens with the fifteen-year-old unnamed narrator’s description of his family – Mum, Dad, younger sister Claire and brother Toby – all leading a normal, busy Australian family life: until 27 April, when “The war starts”. From then on, life is about survival as civilians caught up in a war that has nothing and everything to do with them.
Like other stories about civilian refugees who have fled war in their home-country, Home and Away is disturbing. What makes it particularly hard-hitting for readers in Australia, where the book originates, and indeed in other first-world countries, is the familiarity of the cultural setting of both “Home” and “Away” – either of them could be on the reader’s doorstep. The text is sparse, making it accessible to a wide range of readers; and the stunning art-work is made even more harrowing by the inclusion, alongside Ottley’s realistic, expressive oils, of the heart-rending portrayals of brutality depicted in crayon by the five-year-old Toby.
Told through a series of succinct diary entries written on any piece of paper to hand, we learn of the family’s struggle to survive. The horrors do not cease once they flee their home – their destination does not offer much in the way of hope for starting again. The only members of their family left, the three siblings are separated and kept locked up as prisoners, each deeply psychologically scarred. The narrator’s ambition now is simply to get his family back together again and find a way to survive – forget being a vet, “maybe I could wash cars or something.” The only glimmer of optimism is the kindness of a very few individuals who send small gifts or visit, despite the hostility from government officials who refuse to acknowledge them as refugees.
It is sometimes easy to hide from the human reality of refugee issues behind political rhetoric about immigration. Home and Away strips away all the safety barriers and forces its readers to acknowledge the realness and individuality of refugees through this convincing portrayal of an arbitrary war that spits out ordinary people “like me.” Yes, indeed, this book is an absolute must for anyone seeking to raise compassion and empathy for the plight of refugees anywhere.