Alex Wheatle’s ‘Home Girl’ is a tale of abandonment, abuse and distrust. Adults fail their children leaving psychic scars that run deep. From the unrestrained tongue of a 14-year-old protagonist named Naomi, a timely narrative is recorded.
Embedded in the labyrinth of the foster care system, children, unplugged by personal traumas face insurmountable challenges. Naomi, for all her obduracy and confrontational posturing, is likable, even endearing. Caucasian, she is placed with a black British family – the Goldings – Tony and Colleen, and their two children, Pablo and Sharyna.
Naomi is sardonic, ribald and distrustful, finding comfort only in her meerkat. She can be volatile, threatening long established boundaries, initial presence unsettling the household routine.
Expectedly, she is bruised by her past, her alcoholic father, a present memory. She recounts disappointments and precious time forever stolen. She is a child, turned adult to keep her household afloat. She recounts one episode when “[she] couldn’t stop the tears spilling down [her] cheeks.” The unexpected passing of her mother has left her guilt-ridden.
She yearns stability, security and love, a home she never had. “I have had sleeping bags, single beds, double beds, bunk beds. Doesn’t matter how comfy they are or how many pillows they give me or if I keep the light on…I still have nightmares about Mum.”
Moreover, she ruminates on a sterile, loveless past: “I side-eyed Tony. He kissed Colleen on the cheek. I couldn’t remember a day Rafique ever doing that to Mum in the morning.”
Naomi’s friend, Kim and Nats, are equally starved of meaning. Another friend, Bridget, abandoned as an infant, “is really messed up, like if a boy she fancies doesn’t look at her she wants to kill herself.”
Kim’s words resound, “In this game our kind gotta look out for each other. Too many foster carers are interested in how they look rather than thinking about the kids they say they wanna look after.” And Nats lashes out at adoptions: “Those stoosh women should be banned from adopting babies, especially foreign kids.”
The foster system can be terrifying. Surely, not all foster parents have good intentions. They can be predators, defiling the young and innocent. Many lives are ruined.
Distrustful personalities are formed, untamed and irredeemable. Walls of resistance appear impervious and an avalanche of suspicion rain down, dismissing wise counsel that “not all men are like the ones in the news.”
– They’re all alike…Kim warned me about men who foster kids. Load of’em tried it on with her. She told me not to trust ‘em.
– You see it all the time in the papers and on the news.
– If he tries game on me, I’ll stab him in his prick. I’m not playing!
– There ain’t no good men who foster kids. They’ve all got…an agenda.
– I bet the prick fiddlers we’re watching ya. And there’s a lot of ‘em in the church – it’s where they chill.
– You put me with the Holmans. He was the ultimate prickfiddler and I could tell on my first day with them…
Colleen’s assessment of foster children, – “sometimes people cannot help the way they behave,” rings true. “Circumstances and background have a lot to do with it,” she explains.
But Colleen proves her salt and begins to melt an icy heart. She reminds Naomi that she is still a child, despite her unforgiving upbringing. She shares her own experiences, instructs and reprimands ever so gently, but effectively – “I know you’ve had experiences that a fourteen year-old girl shouldn’t have to go through, but you are still fourteen.”
Beneath Naomi’s veneer of intrepidity and independence is a scared child yearning for love and protection. Slowly, she begins to lower her defences around the Goldings.
An ease sets in, but she must move to another foster home, a white family that her social worker believes is more suitable, if only to abide by the council’s policy against interracial fostering.
Hers is a brief and unnerving sojourn, her heart connecting more and more with the Goldings. She reunites with them only to be at center of contentious and emotive exchange between Tony and his father, the latter objecting to black families fostering white children.
Harking back to the raw racism he experienced as a Jamaican immigrant, he warns his son, “Ah whole heapa black children and refugee need looking after. But no, you decide to foster ah white pickney when white pickney have all de help inna de world. Don’t you see? Their lives are always more precious than ours. Bloodclaat white privilege!”
Naomi’s life is now at the crossroads. What comes next for this child and her closest friends will intrigue and mystify.
Wheatle has delivered a definitive narrative steeped in cultural philosophy and human sensibilities. Despite the foibles of his tragic characters, a redemptive quality is present – persevering – a testament of the human will to survive against all odds.
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