Maggie Gee is renowned for her imaginative, thought-provoking novels which embrace a wide range of themes and genres, underpinned by social commentary, satire and shrewd humour. The Red Children is a wonderfully weird, surreal and otherworldly tale which tackles the complex social issues of migration, race, gender, class, global warming and a deadly virus, against a backdrop of environmental meltdown in the near future. Her exploration of human relationships and the portrayal of her central characters are nuanced and so believable it is as though they are right beside you, as you are drawn into their lives in a seaside town on the south coast of England.
Told from the point of view of a supply teacher, the acting head of the local school, various single women and teenagers, sea cadets and two squabbling ravens, Roland and Princess, The Red Children is imbued with Chaucerian humour. Inspired by a trip to Gibraltar where she visited Neanderthal caves and learned about Neanderthals and their way of life, Gee discovered that, “Their brains were larger than ours. They cooked, they wore clothing and had social lives.”
“They had joined the waves of peoples just starting to swell through the oceans of the world . . . hundreds of thousands of matchstick figures on a shining wall of water, fleeing heat, drought, floods. As he and his people had come northwards, always northwards, to find safety.”
Four naked people who don’t look quite human and glow red in the sunlight suddenly appear one morning, in the harbour of a quiet south coast resort. Then two red children arrive at the local school, speaking an unintelligible language, putting pressure on the acting head and his staff to be welcoming despite their oddness and disturbing behaviour. The kids are playful and fun, anarchic, and seem harmless enough. The locals are puzzled – the newcomers are larger and heavier than they are and say they are fleeing the heat. More and more red people arrive, emerging from the tunnel under the cliffs and taking refuge in caves overlooking the sea. The red people are at one with Nature, weaving flowers in their hair, collecting seashells on the seashore, frolicking on the beach; they do not try to dominate or control their environment. Their tall red-haired leader, Professor Juan der Tal, talks to the universe, dresses like an Englishman, and moves in with Holly Palermo whom he had first met back in the 1990s when he was a steward on a cruise ship.
“Most people think we’re extinct. We’re supposed to have died out thousands of years ago.”
The local community is divided about the red people. Who are they? Where are they from? What is that strange cross-thatched mark the children graffiti everywhere? Some take them in and host them while others side with Benny Barolo and his ‘Put Britain First’ far-right groupies. Pretty senior school teacher, Belinda Birch, the mother of three children all from different fathers, rescues Molo the athlete, much to the irritation of her teenage sons, Joe and Liam, who are already antagonistic towards each other. Now they take different sides, with Liam joining Benny Barolo and his angry thugs, while Joe befriends Molo. Their teacher Monica Ludd (the anti-heroine of Gee’s novel Blood whose father was battered to death and whose brother was a soldier killed in Afghanistan) warns of impending trouble with premonitary accuracy. A confrontation between the community and the arrivants is inevitable. And then there is a fabulous joyful Midsummer Festival, involving “hugging and drinking and dancing“. A Utopian dream, but with a dark undertow?
“My daughter has all kinds of children to play with on these wide sands.
We British, small islanders – Belgians, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Vikings, Norsemen, Africans, Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, Caribbeans, Russians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Afghans, Iranians Syrians – in five or six generations, who will know the difference, or notice?
Fast forward. Fast forward again.”
The Red Children is the perfect visionary, entertaining read as the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference convenes from 30 November to 12 December in Dubai, United Arab Emirates: all talk and Orwellian newspeak underpinned by new ways of doing business. An appropriate companion read, and serious work of non fiction, is Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive about the downfall of past civilizations.
Given how Saudi Arabia’s leaders are already building The Line — a tall, narrow, futuristic eco-city over 105 miles long which will house 9 million residents and run entirely on renewable energy — involving a massive displacement of the nomadic Arab community of Bedouins into new settlements entailing the wholescale destruction of their nomadic desert life and the local ecosystem, any solutions proposed at COP28 are likely to be controlling and hubristic in the long term, fully in tune with the business interests of the hosts and attendees, overlaid by the green sheen of verdigris.
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