Helen Matthews’ debut novel makes for very compelling reading indeed. As with the subject of my last review, Ali Smith’s Autumn, After Leaving the Village is very much a novel of our times, our lives, even if it initially feels that this is a situation fortunately far beyond most people’s comprehension. As alluded to in the foreword, the main plot focuses on a young woman, Odeta, who is trafficked from her Albanian village to become a sex-worker in West London, and who, unbeknown to the local inhabitants, is imprisoned in the basement of a large house on a residential street. Matthews does not pull her punches when building up the horrors of what women face in this situation. It can sometimes make for difficult reading – which is one of the reasons why this novel is so powerful, and why it has been endorsed by the anti-slavery charity, Unseen – but Matthews’ engaging style means that the reader is carried along with Odeta’s story.
Once Odeta’s narrative is established, Matthews brings in Kate, a middle-class woman who has recently moved next door to the run-down house in which Odeta is imprisoned, and who is also, for her own reasons, feeling a sense of loss at leaving the welsh village she grew up in. She is married to Tim, a character I found rather hard to like as the novel went on, and she is concerned about the well-being of her son, Ben, who, like so many of his generation, is only happy when he is plugged into technology of one sort or another.
Running parallel, until events force Kate to recognise what is going on under her nose, the two women’s narratives highlight the fact that everything is now commodified, and also that those without access to the internet are marginalised and vulnerable. On one level, Kate recounts the difficulties another parent has had with her son’s school, ‘They’ve stopped sending letters home with the kids, only communicate by email and expect parents to log on and pay for school trips online. Awatif can’t afford a smartphone and they don’t have Internet.’ On another, the lack of a working phone and access to any form of communication is a significant feature of Odeta’s continued inability to escape her situation. Matthews cranks up the tension, revealing many times just how horribly easy it is for these trafficked women to be hidden away from the rest of modern society.
Matthews is a keen observer of the way many of us live now. After a dinner party, Kate hands her friend a recipe she had asked for, ‘Lisa yawns and drops the printed sheet on the table without giving it a glance. “Could you email me a copy?”’ Kate’s concerns for her son, and her growing distaste for what she sees as society’s dependence on the online world, fuel her decision to attempt to live ‘off-line’, to try to seek a new ‘village’ around her in her new street. In this global world, we all need a village if we are to survive, it seems, and Matthews handles both strands of her story with an assured tone.
Matthews’ novel highlights the complexities of the modern slave trade and she doesn’t offer easy solutions. Early in the novel, it is clear that the inexperienced Odeta’s new lover, Kreshnik, is not what he seems, but Odeta is unable to recognise this, such is the insidious nature of grooming. Later on, we meet Geoffrey, another victim of the traffickers, and I learnt a new term relating to this terrible industry: ‘cuckooing’.
I listen to the radio and I read papers. I know that the modern slave trade exists. However, until I read After Leaving the Village, I had not given much thought to the personal stories of individuals caught up in its horrors – this novel brings home the point that this is happening and that it may be happening nearby. It is a tense and utterly gripping read (I read it in two sittings and felt very aggrieved if anything interrupted me), and I recommend it whole-heartedly. I’m very much looking forward to reading more of this writer’s work.
Thanks to the author for a copy of After Leaving the Village in exchange for an honest review.