Jason Donald’s debut novel, Choke Chain, was an uncompromising piece about the lives of impoverished white South Africans, written in laconic, chiselled sentences. The eponymous heroine of his new work, Dalila, is a 20-year-old woman from Kenya, who, as the story begins, is attempting to get into the United Kingdom on a tourist visa in order to claim asylum. There is some fine writing in this novel, and a noble attempt to empathise with a marginalised individual, but too often it reads like a case study crossed with an opinion piece.
Dalila’s situation is complex in that she is not ostensibly fleeing political or religious oppression; but she is escaping from an intolerable and abusive situation. When she arrives in London she is, predictably, at the mercy of people traffickers as duplicitous and criminal as those she has left behind..
The details are all perfectly convincing: the grind of bureaucracy, the depression suffered by many asylum seekers, the specifics of the official forms, the amount of money she is given each week to live on (a paltry £37.41), the Facebook conversations with former friends back in Kenya. She ends up in Glasgow with another woman, Ma’aza, then she befriends an older refugee called Daniel and is taken under the wing of the saintly Phil at the “Solidarity Centre”.
There are some attempts at literary flourish. Dalila constantly observes and notices what is different There would have been the opportunity here to explore more subtly how an outsider views a culture we inhabit. There are passages of very fine writing.
The problems with Dalila are manifold, even disregarding Donald’s right as a white man to write from the perspective of a black woman. I lost track of how often a Home Office employee was characterised as fat, or cold, or bored; while the asylum seekers never develop beyond tragic back-stories, and their (white, liberal, middle class) supporters are paragons of virtue. A novel should not be judged on its political stance. As it is, Dalila aches with worthiness.