Very rarely do we encounter a book that horrifies, desolates, confuses, and yet draws us back in for more at the end of each too-brief chapter. “Guantanamo Boy” by Anna Perera engrosses the reader with the tale of Khalid Ahmed, a fifteen-year-old boy from England who, while visiting relatives in Pakistan, is brutally abducted from his home and detained as a suspect terrorist in the War on Terror. His detention takes him through months of inhuman conditions and torture in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and eventually to Guantanamo Bay, from where much of his narrative takes place. The psychological trauma that Khalid endures as a result of being confined to a monotonous and enclosed lifestyle is poignantly detailed in the novel. Perera takes us on a journey that contains a rich character development mirrored by the degradation of a human mind. Khalid’s time in Guantanamo, as upsetting as it is, serves to change him from the somewhat distracted teenage boy he once was, to someone much more compassionate and focused. He seems to teeter on the precipice developing a new, mature identity, and losing his past identity altogether as he sees many of his compatriots’ experience. “Guantanamo Boy” ultimately reminds us of the fragility of our mind, and of how deeply it is impacted by our shared consciousness.
Perera faces a daunting task in portraying the torture that Khalid and others endure, but she brilliantly tackles it by escaping the confines of words and using a more visual representation instead. The reader feels as if she has wriggled into the mind of Khalid, and is experiencing the events, or lack of them, along with him. Often the book is characterized by the tedious passing of time, which in any other novel could be monotonous and difficult to read. However it is exactly the monotony that keeps the pages turning, as it is so difficult to imagine anyone surviving such conditions. Because of this, the relationships that Khalid forms are exemplified, along with the characters with whom he occasionally interacts.
“Guantanamo Boy” strikingly illustrates a relatively current phenomenon, and is not only a novel but a call for activism as well. As Perera explains eloquently in her author’s note, “Telling this story was an ordinary act of compassion.” The power in this book is carried by the writing, but what strikes us and draws us back for more is the realization that this story in not fictitious, nor is it unique. Perera promotes awareness and emotion, calling out to the reader to listen. She closes, “It is a plea for another vision in an increasingly war-torn world because, as we know, there really is no ‘them,’ no ‘they’—there is only us—and more of us.”