Thursday 27 July 2017

A Cardboard Palace

A Cardboard Palace written by Allayne L Webster, (Midnight Sun Publishing) PB RRP $17.99 ISBN 978-1-92-522725-3

Reviewed by Elizabeth Vercoe

The back cover blurb claims this novel to be a humbling story about one boy’s desperation to escape a life of crippling poverty. And yes, the book is definitely this. But it is also so much more. A Cardboard Palace is a deeply engaging, thoughtful and ultimately life-affirming book that captures the reader from the very opening lines where action and characters are instantly present on the page. We meet eleven-year-old Jorge as he’s being clipped over the ear by his nasty boss Bill, while preparing to rob an old man with smiling eyes and a walking stick.

Jorge lives on the outskirts of Paris in a cardboard house, along with an army of child thieves. Stolen from their faraway homelands with the promise of making money for their struggling families, Jorge and the other children from this shanty town are under the control of Bill. Bill lives in an apartment with running water and a soft bed, while the children are forced to spend their waking hours stealing money and wallets from the millions of people who pour through the city centre.

The Paris of Jorge’s childhood is markedly different to the Eiffel Tower tea-towels and glossy travel brochures. The children’s Paris is harsh, dynamic and tinged with danger.

I love that we travel alongside Jorge; feeling the challenge and conflict of hunger, of criminal activity and of being unsafe. We laugh at his wonderful capacity for humour (especially sarcastic one-liners) and broader observations, and marvel at the dreams he manages to hold. We are drawn into this harsh yet remarkably human community where we’re not asked to feel sorry for Jorge, but rather to appreciate the world from his point of view. We see the obstacles in his way and hope that he’ll overcome them.

This is a captivating story that will transport both girls and boys into the action-packed and often seedy underbelly of Paris, a city that holds great sway in the collective imagination. This book is highly recommended.

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