3 out of 4 stars
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Saah Kamandu grows up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Although his family struggles to make ends meet, he is happy to be with his parents and his sister, Tenneh. Soon after Tenneh’s marriage to Musa, the Blood Diamond war reaches the city and changes Saah’s life forever. In their obsession with controlling the diamond mines, the rebels will stop at nothing to achieve their goal. They burn down houses, kill innocent people, and use rape, mutilation, and amputation to spread terror. Separated from their family, Saah and Musa flee the city on a boat heading to Guinea. Two more years pass until they can get to the Red Cross refugee camp in Ghana. Even more years later, Saah faces the option of relocating to Australia under a new name. Will he leave his past behind and jump into the unknown?
The Other Side of the Ocean by Beverley Bell is a dramatic story of survival under the most terrible circumstances. The author chooses a third-person narration focusing on Saah’s development. Caught in a country crippled by civil war, Saah witnesses and experiences things that make him mature fast. From this perspective, the novel is based on a coming-of-age story giving birth to many emotional scenes. For example, I remember Saah, Musa, and Tenneh hiding under the bed for three days while waiting for the rebels to get to them. However, the scene I cannot get out of my mind is when Saah finds his father after the rebels’ attack.
The novelist does a great job of enhancing the plight of war refugees and the long-term psychological effects of traumatic experiences. The book has 264 pages divided into 54 chapters. I have finished reading it in only two days. Most chapters are intense and emotionally trying because of all the drama associated with Saah’s life. The violent scenes are not graphically described, but they stir a wide range of emotions and feelings. The protagonist is highly relatable, so I was able to empathize with both his losses and victories. The message of hope prevailing over any grief and sadness accompanying the tragic moments is what I liked the most about the book.
The plot development follows the most significant events in Saah’s journey of self-discovery. Beverley Bell realistically describes all the settings where life takes the protagonist. In this way, we can imagine the horror of a city torn apart by civil war, the overloaded boat carrying Saah and Musa to Guinea, their life in a refugee camp in Ghana, or their unbelievable efforts to adapt to a completely different country. The identity struggle stands at the core of the novel. By the end of the book, Saah/Ben realizes that his two names/identities are “simply different facets of the many-faceted man who was himself.” (p. 218)
I would have given the book the highest rating if it had not been for the editing errors. Mostly punctuation mistakes, they exceeded the ten acceptable ones. For this reason alone, I am rating Beverley Bell’s novel 3 out of 4 stars. Otherwise, I have nothing to complain about it. On the contrary, I warmly recommend the book to all those who do not shy away from a realistic refugee story tackling topics such as trauma, culture shock, racism, poverty, or social inequality. Readers of coming-of-age novels will also be drawn to Saah’s identity struggle and journey of self-discovery. Because of the occasional profane words and the emotionally challenging scenes, I only recommend the book to readers over 18 years old.
The Other Side of the Ocean
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