Today it’s my stop on the blog tour for Victoria’s Williamson’s emotionally moving debut, ‘The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle.’ This is a beautiful story about an unlikely friendship formed between school bully Caylin and refugee Reema when a shared secret brings them together. Despite seemingly having nothing in common, both girls are feeling lost and are struggling with grief as they try to find their place in the world. Caylin is forced to steal to feed herself, she never has clean clothes and doesn’t know if her Mum will ever get out of bed. While Reema can’t get used to this new country where strangers despise her, she can’t understand the language and without her brother Jamal it can never feel like home. I was totally captivated by this story that is filled with so much sadness yet so much hope. The characterisation is just marvellous you invest so much of your heart in Caylin and Reema that you become completely emotionally invested in their struggles. Despite the difficulties they both face this is an uplifting story about the power of acceptance and friendship. I just loved it and it needs to be in every primary and secondary school library.
I would like to welcome Victoria to the blog with a special guest post about finding your home.
Home is not a Place – Victoria Williamson
Close your eyes and think of the word ‘home’.
What’s the first image that comes to mind?
The picture you see often depends on where you are. If you’re on a crowded train during a busy commute to work, you might imagine the peace and quiet of a lazy Sunday morning breakfast at the kitchen table. If you’re at your desk in the office and the rain’s pouring down, you might conjure up a summer holiday at the beach as a child. If you’re relaxing on the sofa after a hard day’s work, it might be a weekend picnic at the local park you’re looking forward to that pops into your head first.
If you’re anything like me though, all of the images will have one thing in common: they’ll all have close family and friends somewhere in the picture, even if they’re standing just out of the frame. For Caylin and Reema in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, all of their happiest memories of home are filled with longing for the people they miss.
Caylin has lost her grandparents. Her granny died when she was little, but it was her grandad’s death over a year before the story begins that was the catalyst for her mother’s depression and downward spiral into alcohol abuse. Her memories of her grandad are still strong, and so sharp at times they hurt. But it’s her hazy of her granny she desperately tries to cling to, believing if she can only remember them clearly, then maybe she can bring back some of the happiness of former times before her mother’s illness too. In chapter five she says:
I pull a small photo album out from under my pillow and open it up, showing Mum the picture of a tall woman with a long curly ponytail. She’s crouching under a tree in a park beside a chubby wee girl who’s holding out her hand. They’re not looking at the camera, they’re both watching the squirrel that’s running over to snatch a nut from the girl’s outstretched palm.
“We used to go there all the time with your gran. It was her favourite place, you remember?” Mum says half to herself.
I nod again. It’s another lie. Ravensholm Park’s only twenty minutes away on the bus, but after Gran passed away Grandad was too sad to take me to feed the squirrels there any more. It’s all just a distant blur in my head now, mixed up with Mum’s second-hand stories. I wish I could remember something, anything, about the woman in the picture.
Caylin’s half-forgotten memories of Ravensholm Park near Drumhill were drawn from my childhood trips to Dawsholm Park near Drumchapel where my own granny and grandad lived. I have very happy memories of both sets of grandparents there, feeding the squirrels, going on family picnics, and playing on the swings until the sun was setting over the Glasgow cityscape beyond the hill. Sometimes writing provides authors with an opportunity to breathe new life into these old images, preserving them in the memories of characters we have created until the boundaries between fact and fiction become blurred.
Reema’s memories of the home she lost in Syria are so clear they haunt her dreams and intrude on her waking thoughts. But whether it’s her family’s apartment or her school or the city of Aleppo she’s thinking about, all of her memories revolve around her missing brother. In chapter six she thinks:
His voice is speaking in my head. I can hear him so clearly he could be standing next to me at the school gate where he met me every day and took me home.
“Race you, Little Gazelle. Let us see who reaches the market first.”
I look up at him, twice my height and three times as broad, and know today is the day I will beat him without him letting me win.
“You are too old and slow!” I shout, already running down the street. “You could not catch me if you tried!”
I hear Jamal laugh behind me and the sound of his shoes hitting the ground as he runs to catch up. But he will not catch me today. I race past the basketball court in the school yard and across the road, dodging the slow-moving traffic snarled up in the narrow street and ignoring the shouts of drivers who are tired and grumpy in the late afternoon heat. The bright yellow of the taxis blends with the orange of the minibuses until it looks like the sun is setting right here in the road.
The sky above is still blue though. An endless vivid blue that makes my heart sing to look up at it.
In chapter twelve she can’t help comparing the playground in Drunhill to a happier memory of the one where she used to play in Aleppo with her family:
In my dreams I still see the playground in Aleppo before the war. Sara and I are climbing into the seats of the mini Ferris wheel with a whole crowd of children from our apartment building, giggling with excitement as Jamal pushes us round and round.
“Higher Jamal, higher!” I yell, spinning so close to the sky that if I reach my hands up I can almost touch the edge of the sun. I look down to see Jamal pulling a face at me, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue. It makes me laugh so hard I almost fall from my seat as he spins us faster.
It isn’t just the places themselves that are the focus of Caylin and Reema’s memories. Caylin might only remember her granny at Ravensholm park, but she thinks of watching cartoons at her grandad’s house, fishing with him at the canal and family outings to the beach. Reema remembers the Citadel in Aleppo because of the trips she used to take there with her father and brother, and the Eid al-Fitr feasts because of the food she used to cook with her mother and aunt Amira. All of their memories of home are filled with the most important people in their lives, and I’m sure yours are too.
And that’s because ‘home’ isn’t a place – it’s the people we love.
Victoria Williamson is a primary school teacher who has worked in Africa and China as well as the UK. ‘The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle,’ is her debut novel.
Why not join in with the rest of the blog tour for more guest posts, reviews and giveaways.
Thank you to Victoria for her beautiful guest post and for inviting me to join in with the blog tour. ‘The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle,’ is available to order now online or from any good bookshop. Twenty percent of the author royalties for this book are donated to the Scottish Refugee Council.