Ahmed is a 14 year old Syrian whose mother and sisters died under the bombs in Aleppo. At the beginning of the book, he is with his father on a boat that takes on water. The sea is very rough, the father dives to try to pull the canoe. And disappears.
Children are like everyone else, they know the stories of migrants, the drowned in the Mediterranean, and how certain smugglers behave. Max, 13, hears another speech. Pauline, who comes to watch him every day after school, has theories about European culture threatened by refugees, and about Muslims who are potential terrorists. Max, when he discovers the presence of Ahmed at home, in the basement where he is now hiding, does not know how to behave. But he quickly decides: he will help Ahmed.
Like many novels these days (adult novels as well), the point of view of the two protagonists is presented alternately. Ahmed’s side is day-to-day survival until Max finds out, petty theft to feed, to keep the long hours of loneliness busy. He arranges his hiding place, takes care of the orchids that Max’s mother relegated to the cellar, and sometimes allows himself some memories that show that the author, the American Katherine Marsh, has seriously learned about the Syria, on Aleppo and on the fate of exiled minors.
Max’s side is pretty funny. This little American displeases himself sovereignly in Belgium, where it rains, where we eat weird stuff, and where he is forced to write with the pen! Unlike his older sister, whose lessons are in English, he is condemned to the French language whose difficulties exasperate him. In addition, a stubborn boy, Oscar, decided to make him a scapegoat. Oscar, however, will not always be an enemy. Being the son of an employee of the municipal hotel (the town hall), he will have his utility. Add the delicious Farah, and we will have a shock quartet.
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Between Ahmed and Max, who does not tell his parents that they have a resident in the cellar, the pact is interesting, because it is egalitarian: they help each other. Max, the bad student, the ungrateful pre-adolescent, discovers treasures of imagination, ingenuity and courage. Ahmed, the poor boy, in danger of being discovered, is gradually regaining hope. He will even go to school …
And we believe in it, we tremble when the police get too curious, when we have to flee, when Max’s plans are in danger of completely screwing up. The news catches up with the two friends – attacks in Paris and Brussels. Katherine Marsh, who spent a year in Belgium with her family, like Max’s parents, can very well describe the atmosphere of the Belgian capital at that time. She lived on the same street as her characters, rue Albert-Jonnart, named after a Belgian who lost his life for hiding a young Jew at home during the war. Max gets this story told, and benefits from it.
The Boy in the Basement, by Katherine Marsh. Translated from English (United States) by Blandine Longre. Laffont “R Jeunesse”, 440pp., € 14.90. From 10 years old.