Butterfly cover MardiniAn amazing read which I urge people to have a look at. Although it has quite a lot about the warfare in Syria, the information presented is not graphic in the slightest, although the emotional effects and consequences are very strongly drawn.

Yusra and her sister Sara are ordinary Syrian girls – although they have great talent for swimming. Their dad’s a swimming coach, and actually the descriptions of his work with them, including pushing them very hard and ignoring injuries is more graphic and upsetting than when the bombs start.

When war breaks out, they don’t get much news. There’s gossip on the school bus and at first everything seems far away. Then their mum has to stop working at a spa a little way away, because gunfire and bombs are pushing customers away. Then it gets closer. Suddenly they’re being confronted by tanks when driving to grandma’s or finding their beloved training pool is actually being bombed. Among all this, Sara and Yusra are growing up, Sara’s rebelling a bit, they’re not going for the headscarf (and aren’t compelled to) because they compete in swimsuits (this is an issue, but one they can handle). They seem to get more and more bright and sociable as the war intensifies, but something’s got to give and when they can’t go to swimming practice any more, it’s time to think of a solution.

People have been leaving one by one, and they can see paths to take. These are awful paths that no one would want to take, including matter-of-fact finding of people smugglers and paying over of large sums of money (Mardini is clear that only those with some money behind them can afford to do this). The paths involve putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers and bobbing across the Mediterranean in a small unseaworthy boat. But that has to be better than going over the mountains:

‘We’re girls,’ says Sara. ‘We can’t go sneaking around in the mountains, being hunted by police, and waiting to get our legs broken. We can swim, let’s go by sea.’

Sara has said to Yusra that if it comes to it, they’re swimmers, they can save themselves. But of course they can’t do that, and while what Yusra hates is the myth that they towed the boat full of cousins and new friends across, of course it was less simple than that. They got out to make the boat lighter. They swam for hours, trying to keep it straight. Other people swam, too. Horrible. Again, the descriptions are visceral and haunting, but not graphic.

The struggle across the borders to Germany is as you can imagine – unimaginable in this day and age. They are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers and find this humiliating (wouldn’t we?). Once there, they are welcomed and happy but also treated like almost sub-humans, at the mercy of the authorities. Yusra really struggles with the word refugee and the feeling that that’s the only thing she is:

I sit in silence, struggle with myself for a minute. It’s that word. Refugee. It’s the bomb and the sea and the borders and the barbed wire and the humiliation and the bureaucracy. And yes, it’s the painful charity too.

But she realised that, like her hero Malala, she can talk for thousands or millions of people with the spotlight she’s been given, so she steels herself to do that, for which I salute her.

What’s fascinating but also somehow horrible is the role that social media plays in all this. They’re on Facebook, messenger, texting, sharing videos, but the Facebook posts might be to a Facebook group for boats in distress rather than a jolly book group, or you might be finding out that an old schoolfriend has been killed half-way through their escape. It really brings it home how this is a tragedy happening right now, to people like us, and of course that’s really important to know and remember.

There are a lot of positives – the story is really well-told, Yusra’s voice is lively and confident and bold and she’s so one-track-minded about her swimming, even being worried about making it to the Olympics because she’s a refugee rather than because she’s a brilliant swimmer (not that she’s ungrateful, but I love her aggressive ambition. Fair play to her). The moment when they step into the Olympic stadium in the Rio opening ceremony and the crowd just roars is lovely to read – I remember that moment, and it bringing me to tears. The people that help them in Germany are wonderful and we’re told that it was thousands of volunteers supporting the newcomers. The book ends on a positive note emphasising survival, and like I said at the start, there’s no gratuitous or graphic violence, so you can feel safe to read it and to give it to teenagers to read, I’d say.

This book is published on 03 May and I really do highly recommend it.

Thank you to Pan Macmillan for making this book available via NetGalley in return for an honest review