Breach review – short stories exploring the refugee crisis

Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’s collection of fine, suspenseful fiction is an attempt to explore both the lives of those on the run and the fears of those who wish to close borders

Writing from Calais last year, where she and Annie Holmes were gathering refugees’ stories, Olumide Popoola asked: “What happens when we try to know another’s painful journey? When we try to hold it in some way, to say: you are here. I see you.” This, and other conundrums, is what the short stories in Breach illuminate with great narrative panache. The first in a series of specially commissioned fiction engaged with unfolding political crises, Breach was conceived as an attempt to explore, not through reportage but through literature, the lives of those on the run and also “the fears of people in this country who want to close their borders”. To my knowledge, it is the first full-length book of fiction about the current refugee crisis since it entered our consciousness, and it possesses a timeless quality, despite its obvious timeliness.

This is fine, suspenseful fiction springing from human lives in extremis; despite the historical distance, I was reminded of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales and the grace fiction can distil from desperate material. Here are two accomplished writers co‑authoring a work without taking credit for individual stories – the style and tempo are consistent throughout the changing perspectives. It would be fascinating to hear how Popoola and Holmes crafted this level of artistic unity, almost a sustained act of ventriloquism.

Written entirely in the present tense,which here does a good job of conveying urgency, each story takes us on an exciting misadventure. Some are set in “the Jungle” – Calais and the wider world of refugees, smugglers, well-wishers and ill-wishers. In “Paradise”, an English volunteer takes her niece to Calais, hoping she would “fall in love with justice, with activism, not some boy”. Two Eritrean girls desperate for money try to prostitute themselves to local truck drivers, with tragicomic results; a smug volunteer’s attempt to be chummy with the two girls is equally tragicomic. In the striking “Ghosts”, a clear-eyed, articulate people smuggler nicknamed Ghostboy is indefinitely stuck in Calais because “our country is just plain out of date”. Ghostboy has some good lines – on the refugee condition: “For you and me, there’s only now.” On the human condition: “People are the same wherever. Greedy or lost or both.” A French unreliable narrator in “The Terrier” welcomes two young Syrian Kurds into her farmhouse, but frets: are they underage siblings, or terrorists?

Popoola and Holmes’s vision of life on the edge is rich with ambiguity. We are given the experience from within, with panic attacks inside freezer trucks and texts to worried parents back home who have bankrupted themselves to pay for their child’s passage. In “Oranges in the River”, a punchy two-hander, Dlo is “weighed down by his father’s sacrifices”, but his friend Jan “drove himself forward, drilling towards the future, relentless and unstoppable”.

We meet a guy who sleeps with his trainers on in case he has to run; a man living in Birmingham who wants to visit his sick mother in Iran but is trapped in a Kafkaesque confusion. We see what it’s like to have to bureaucratically “summarise” your predicament (“How do you summarise genocide?” says one deadpan Sudanese narrator), and discover the stark sensation of being an ‘involunteer’ at the mercy of pitiless forces. Most hauntingly, these stories explore the existential impasse of being young and filled with wasted energy, like Alghali, who has made it to Bolton just in time to be beaten up by locals on the day of the Paris bombing. He contemplates a “distant future that could come tomorrow, that could come months down the line. Or never.” By giving the voiceless of our time their voices back, voices vibrant with humour, truth, and knowledge, Breach serves everyone, greedy or lost or both, with a fresh dollop of humanity. I’d even say hope.

• To order Breach for £9.84 (RRP £12) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Kapka Kassabova

The GuardianTramp

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