Book Review: B, A Year in Plagues and Pencils

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“I’m not looking for perfection here: I’m marking time”

On 19 March 2020, Edward Carey drew a pencil sketch of ‘A determined young man’. He posted it on Twitter with the comment, ‘I’m going to do a drawing a day until all this nonsense is over.’ He continued his daily drawings for five hundred days. Sadly, this nonsense is not yet over.

Carey describes the book thus:

“a journal in pencil of a year in misery and hope. Small marks. Daily scratchings, as evidence of life”

As well as including reproductions of the pencil sketches he drew each day during the first year of plague lockdown, there are short musings on the life the author was leading and how hemmed in he felt. Local and world news was available in abundance across the internet, but day to day he was required to stay at home, in and around his Texas bungalow with his wife and two children. For a family used to regular travel, this required an adjustment in perspective.

“I’m forgetting faces. I miss people, of course, terribly. Yet every day out of the window there are still people there. I see these individuals walking up and down the street. Can’t see their faces. Only their eyes and the top of their heads. Like a new breed of human, with no nose, no mouth, no chin.”

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The author writes of the pleasure he has long derived from drawing, and how this project gave him something to focus on, although at times he considered quitting. The short prose sections are imbued with a melancholy he tries hard to suppress. They reflect how so many have felt.

“Sometimes these drawings feel like shed skin. They were former times, stacks of yesterdays”

The subjects chosen vary. They include: people representing events from the year, well known characters from reality and fiction, family, nature. Some were requested by others. Carey chose to do many himself.

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“Hours a day I drew. Just with a pencil mostly. Drawing being an alternative to words, another way of communicating”

The art included is wonderful to peruse. The style is distinctive – a hint of gothic but also playful. The writing pulls them together to form a keepsake of a time we will look back on with sorrow but also wonder – what we learned and how we and others felt. Although the reflections are personal, they resonate.

The forward, written by Max Porter, reminds us of the appreciation Twitter users expressed when the project was ongoing.

“It’s beautiful work. It makes the great mean machine of Twitter a momentarily nicer place. You land upon the carefully drawn image as you scroll through aggressions, bullish assertions, the snide, the sarcastic or the statistically devastating.”

We have here a book that offers readers these fine artistic creations alongside succinct reminders of previously unimaginable events now lived through. A poignant yet beautifully produced chronicle of a year those who have survived will never forget.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic.

Robyn Reviews: In The Wars

‘In the Wars’ is a moving medical memoir by an NHS doctor and Afghan refugee. It offers a fascinating, if horrific, look into life in Afghanistan in the 1990s and the experience of growing up through civil war. It also paints a stark picture of what it’s like to be a refugee in the UK – the rigidness of the asylum system and the impact this can have. Latter chapters explore Dr Arian’s humanitarian efforts – the charity he founded to improve healthcare in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries, and how his experiences have shaped how he approaches humanitarian aid. Dr Arian writes in a simple yet effective way, making profound observations. A highly recommended read.

The story starts with fifteen-year-old Waheed in Feltham Young Offenders Institution. He’s just arrived off the plane from Afghanistan as a refugee, and immediately been arrested on charges of travelling on a false passport – a charge with up to ten years in prison. Waheed is confused and alone, not understand why he’s been arrested when he believes himself a legitimate refugee. His cellmate is there on charges of theft – Waheed doesn’t understand why anyone would steal when they have the chance to legitimately work and earn money. It sets the tone for the rest of the memoir – a story with moments of positivity and hope, but also one that shows the harsh reality of growing up in a warzone and navigating a deliberately hostile immigration system.

We then go back in time to Waheed’s childhood. Born in Kabul, his early life was relatively peaceful, albeit with some strange quirks he never thought to question – not being allowed to play outside, only his mum and eldest sister being allowed to answer the door. The eldest son, he was granted privileges not afforded to his sisters. However, life changed quickly – his father was conscripted into the military, but wanting to remain neutral deserted, leaving the family in a precarious social and financial situation. As conflict escalated, the family fled to their first refugee camp in Pakistan, with the rest of his childhood split between spells in Pakistan and spells returning to Afghanistan in the hope things would be better. The family was regularly separated, and Waheed was forced to grow up far earlier than he should have. There was a constant fear of death, and not just from conflict – he nearly died of tuberculosis in a Pakistani refugee camp aged just five due to a shortage of medicines. It was that experience that cemented in Waheed’s mind that he was going to be a doctor.

These early passages are shocking. Britain is taught woefully little about modern history, and the precise origins of the conflict in Afghanistan were new to me. Dr Arian covers them almost matter-of-factly – because to him, there was no other way of living. This makes them more profound than any dramatisation. There are happier moments – the birth of siblings, trips to family in the Afghan countryside – but these are mere blips in an otherwise bleak canvas. Its difficult to imagine how anyone survived – harder still to think that there are millions living like this today.

Barely a teenager, Waheed decides to enrol to study medicine at the Islamic University in a Pakistani refugee camp. This is not an accredited university, but the only way he can see of achieving his dream of becoming a doctor. However, his family choose to return to Afghanistan – leaving him, at thirteen, living a totally independent life. Waheed is a child surrounded by adults, and reading about this time is heartbreaking. The mental toll of separation is almost inconceivable. However, his joy in his studies is clearly apparent. There’s an interesting dichotomy between his joy of being so close to his dream, and the sadness of everything he’s giving up – plus the knowledge that, as fulfilling as the course is, it won’t actually give a qualification recognised anywhere outside the refugee camp.

In these chapters, Waheed also gives the greatest insight into the political situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and how the rise of various militant factions affects day-to-day life. Again, it’s a fascinating look at a piece of modern history that is rarely contextualised in Western media. Waheed’s drive and determination is admirable, and its impossible not to be affected by the plight of a thirteen-year-old separated from his family in search of a better life.

It’s around this time that Waheed, naturally, starts to think about seeking asylum elsewhere to pursue his dreams. These passages are difficult to read in a different way. Waheed is hugely vulnerable to exploitation, and the way those around him use his plight is horrendous. It’s one thing knowing that the UK – and many other countries’ – immigration departments are designed to put off asylum seekers, another entirely to read first hand how confusing and traumatic the process is. In many ways, Waheed is fortunate – he does make it to the UK, and whilst he’s initially treated like a criminal he eventually succeeds in claiming asylum for both himself and his younger brother. Reading this section, it’s clear Waheed’s success is in a huge part down to both luck and his own intelligence. It’s clear that many others like Waheed will have had stories ending a different way.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. They receive housing benefit, but many landlords won’t accept tenants on housing benefit, and the benefits available don’t always cover the cost of living. Young asylum seekers like Waheed can access education, but are not given the knowledge of what qualifications will be useful to them – they must figure this out by themselves. Like many asylum seekers, Waheed works multiple jobs illegally to scrape together enough money to survive and build a life for himself. Once again, his sheer tenacity shines through. It’s difficult to imagine just how hard this period was for him.

Against all the odds, Waheed makes it to medical school – initially Cambridge, then transferring to Imperial for the clinical years, a path that was common then. Here, his struggles take on a different note. A little older, and far less affluent, than his course mates, Waheed struggles to make genuine connections. His cultural background leaves him unsure how to interact with them – women especially. He also, for the first time in his life, starts to struggle academically. Elements of this section are harder for Westerners to relate to – his search for a wife, for example – but it’s interesting seeing why this is so important to Waheed and his family, and how the intersection of his Afghani and Western upbringing affects how he approaches things. The guilt he feels about betraying his roots is palpable and very moving.

The final part of the tale follows Dr Arian as he navigates medical training and sets up his charity, Arian Teleheal. It’s lovely seeing how much joy he gets from his dream job and what being a doctor means to him. After so much suffering, it’s also wonderful to see him settled and happy with a family of his own. The guilt is still there – most of his family is still in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and he worries about leaving them behind – but there’s also the awareness that he’s helped them far more by taking the risk and leaving than he would have by staying.

The sections on the charity are interesting, but after a time become a bit repetitive. Arian Teleheal is a wonderful organisation, allowing doctors in countries like Afghanistan and Syria to access the knowledge of doctors practising in the Western world. Its expansion and achievements are incredible, but unfortunately the end of the memoir turns into a sort of list of them, losing some of the emotional impact of the rest of Waheed’s story. Teleheal appears to be the only reason he’s released a memoir – in the hope that his story will drive further investment and achievements for the charity – which is admirable. I hope it succeeds. It’s a shame, therefore, that the Teleheal section is the one with the least poignancy and resonance to the reader.

Overall, ‘In the Wars’ is a powerful and moving story about living through conflict, the refugee experience, and one man’s determination to give back. Dr Arian is clearly an incredible person and I hope his charitable endeavours have the success they deserve. Recommended for those who want to learn more about an important piece of modern history and those just looking for a powerful, moving read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Random House for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Bantam Press
Hardback: 17th June 2021