This is a bleak and wonderful book. In Cloe Mehdi’s novel, 11 year old Mattia grows up in a community haunted by an event before he was born—the beating to death of 15 year-old Said Zahidi by a policeman during an ID check.
The subsequent acquittal of the officer was met by riots. A decade and a half later, the local neighbourhood has been dispersed following the demolition of its tower blocks, but nothing has changed.
The wounds left on the community have not healed. Mattia’s father was driven to suicide by these events and the family imploded. The toll on people’s mental health is widespread. State brutality, racism and injustice leave unfinished business. Nobody just gets over it, as the police imagine, unless they are brought to account.
Young Mattia’s awareness of this increases when new graffiti tagging Said’s death starts to appear all over town. He begins to make connections between this and the inexplicable interest the police start taking in him and his foster family.
His late father’s “paranoid schizophrenia” is challenged as it turns out he really was being harassed by the state. This diagnosis has long been up for question, especially given the disproportionate of young black men in the same position. The novel also explores killing yourself, including Mattia’s attempt at the age of seven.
This novel does not shy away from suicide and takes a hard look at a society that condemns it without addressing people’s desperation. In the aftermath of his own single attempt, Mattia has to live with an adult who repeatedly finds life unbearable.
Mehdi’s novel challenges the failure of the health system and education system to understand or support people through trauma when the state may be responsible. At the time this novel was published in France, Adama Traora, a 24 year old black man the same age as the author, died from asphyxiation after being restrained by police.
The police lied about what had happened, tried to stop the family seeing the body, tear-gassed his mother and brother. And they tried to stop a second autopsy taking place which proved the police had killed him.
In 2005, two teenagers, Bouna Traoré, aged 15, and Zyed Benna, aged 17, were electrocuted after running away from police in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. It triggered some of the biggest rioting in France for 40 years.
No official figures are kept on the number of people killed or injured by police or gendarmes. But there is “a pattern of de facto impunity” with regard to law enforcement officials in France. Campaign groups and estimates suggest there are between ten and 15 deaths a year linked to the police in France.
Mehdi meditates on what it is to live in this world without hope. She doesn’t leave us without it.
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