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Terror Kid by Benjamin Zephaniah review

untitledTerror Kid

Benjamin Zephaniah

Hot Key Books, September 2014

Rico knows what trouble is. And he knows to stay away from trouble as best he can. Because if there is one thing he has learnt, it’s that he will always be a suspect. Rico also knows what injustice is. He sees it happening to him and he sees it happening around the world. He is angry and frustrated. He wants to speak out  – but how? Then a stranger gives Rico the perfect opportunity. Which is where everything goes wrong…

This is an unsettling story about just how easily the innocent can be swept up by events and falsely accused of the worst crimes, just for being in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’.

Rico is a quiet, serious teenager who is into computers and has a keen awareness of the injustices going on around him in the world. He is not someone who can passively stand by – but he prefers to engage in peaceful demonstration rather than get caught up in the violent rioting that ensues in Birmingham in reaction to a case of unfair police treatment against a local teenaged girl. His feisty Somali friend Karima is just the opposite, however, and does her best to convince him to join her and her friends as they gleefully participate in the mindless looting. Ironically, it is just after he has refused and is walking away that he is arrested. And it’s not the first time he has been taken in by the police without good reason. Of Romany descent, Rico often finds himself the subject of unwanted attention from the police. So far he’s managed to keep his nose clean, but that all changes when, at the suggestion of a mysterious man named Speech, he agrees to hack into the police computer network and shut the system down for ten minutes as a form of ‘peaceful protest’. But when Speech’s true motives become apparent after the event, Rico’s life begins to spin horribly out of control.

This was a thought-provoking read because its central themes are so topical. Acts of terrorism are something that many of us fear, and it seems like the threat of them happening is always there in the background. The real-life riots that happened in Britain back in 2011 were pretty scary too  – things spiralled out of control so quickly and the news reports were frightening to watch. But what terrified me more about this story was the willingness of the authorities to pin crimes on a totally harmless scapegoat, and the eagerness of the media to sell the story to the world without even thinking to question whether the so-called ‘terror kid’ might be innocent (in fact, the portrayal of the British media seemed pretty spot on!). It also made me think a lot about how when the real riots happened there was so much focus on the news on all the violence and destruction. But there must have been many more people like Rico who saw it all going on around them and refused to take part. The book paints a rather sad depiction of the state of society in many ways, but it’s not without hope – Rico isn’t corrupted by all that happens to him, and even manages to change his friend Karima’s mind about getting involved in even more violent revolutionary activities. He learns from his mistakes, and the fallout doesn’t make him renounce the genuine concerns that led him to make them in the first place. So maybe there is still a lot to be said for steadfastly holding to your beliefs in a peaceful fashion and leading by example  – even if it doesn’t grab the big front-page headlines.

The story is told in a very straight-forward, simplistic style – deceptively so, because at the same time it managed to convey a multi-faceted viewpoint of some very complex social issues. For me, though, there was something about this style that felt a little detached. I liked the character Rico, I wanted for him to find a way out of the very unfair, difficult situation that he found himself in, and I could also see why he would feel very angry and frustrated. Yet at the same time I didn’t really feel those things for him – I didn’t become angry and frustrated on his behalf. I came away from it thinking that the events could have happened to anyone really. Maybe in part that’s the point – that if they can arrest Rico for doing nothing wrong, it could just as easily happen to the next person on the street. But even though the writing style didn’t really resonate with me, I did find it a gripping story that left me with lots of questions and thoughts about prejudice and our willingness to accept the presence of injustice in our society. It’s definitely a book that will get people talking.

Thank you to Hot Key Books for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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