JJ Bola’s, debut novel, No Place To Call Home attentively develops the themes expected in a novel about refugees surviving in a strange new country. Bola touches on language, community, parent-child relationships, specifically father-son and father-daughter relationships, expectations of first generation African children, religion, moeurs, and most of all home. All of these subjects are catalysts for developing each of the main characters.
The personable third person voice of No Place To Call Home tells the story of Papa, Mami, Jean, and Marie. The ingenuity of the narrator’s voice gently pulls us into the complex life of this family. Refugees from the Congo living in London, we follow the difficulty of Papa and Mami to survive while waiting to get their papers, which will allow them to stay in the UK legally. They are fleeing political horrors of the dictator Le Maréchal.
The story quickly focuses mostly on their family life. Jean is about 11 years old, trying to fit in and master the English language. This comes with many tests, from fitting in with the boys to making excellent grades to pleasing his exigent father. Jean’s sister Marie is the model child and student. She is younger and not the first-born boy so she doesn’t have the same expectations placed upon her as, her brother, Jean.
Bola does an excellent comparison of Papa and Jean by starting out developing Jean’s character at school in the UK and then later paralleling that with Papa’s adaptation to École Polytechinique in Brussels. They are two different ages in these scenes but it depicts similar difficulties they have, how they deal with them and how they develop and reinforce their personalities. This also depicts the way Bola has chosen to talk about African societal expectations for African men and women. The roles of men are incorporated in the story and juxtaposed with those of women. For example, there is Tonton, the lazy womanizer, Pastor Kaddi the dishonest evangelical priest, and Koko Patrice, Papa’s manipulative, elusive father, and Koko Mobali, Mami’s domineering father.
I strongly urge you to pick up No Place To Call Home. Its touching characters and well-developed story lines will have you completely submerged. I read this book in two sittings. I couldn’t put it down. However the only thing that disappointed me about this book was the ending. I was hoping for something a bit more concrete.
“JJ Bola is a Kinshasa-born, London-raised writer, poet, educator, and workshop facilitator. He has published two books of poetry, Elevate and Word, and performs regularly at shows and festivals. In 2015-2016, Bola performed on a US poetry slam tour that took him to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Toronto, and more. He lives in London.” (back cover of No Place To Call home)
No Place to Call Home, 286 pages, Arcade Publishing
Rating: 4 stars
Recommended to: Readers looking for interesting fiction novels about refugees in the UK
Book quote: “If you are lucky, you will never have to remember home through your mother’s tears or the rage in your father’s voice when it shakes. Home will be somewhere you run to, never away from. It will never chase you away; a rabid dog hot on your heels with teeth like a shark, teeth so sharp you can already feel it cutting into you.” (No Place to Call Home, p. 285)
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