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4.6 out of 5 stars
This Is Where I Am
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VINE VOICEon 12 March 2013
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I am a great fan of all of Karen Campbell's previous novels. She has written four excellent police crime novels all set in Glasgow.
This novel, while mostly set in Glasgow is huge departure from police into the world of a Somalian Asylum seeker/refugee male and a middle aged white woman who wants to help him as a mentor.

Each of these two characters (Abdi and Deborah) has their own voice in different chapters, enabling the reader to hear their thoughts and memories. This way we get to know each more deeply.
I cannot say I liked either of them and it is hard to like a book when you can find no-one likeable or sympathetic.

Abdi is here fleeing violence and torture. He has with him his young daughter Rebecca who will no longer speak. His wife was lost, he saw her murdered in front of him in Kenya just as they were leaving one of the terrible refugee camps to come to "Youkay" for a safe new life.
Deborah is grieving for her husband who died just a year ago after a terrible illness. Before that she was a teacher. She isn't ready to work yet, but does need to do something.

Deborah is one of those characters whose heart is definitely in the right place though she won't always get it right with her actions. There is an underlying motivation for her mentoring that comes out later and explains her actions.

I still like Karen Campbell's writing and will continue reading any book she writes. But I didn't really enjoy this one much. I think of a novel like "One Thousand Splendid Suns", a novel that communicates so vividly terrible suffering, yet that never felt a rant. It was a deeply moving story. I think this novel missed the mark.

The story does contains flashbacks that are informative and painful to read. Both these characters have to come to terms with trauma and grief and the friendship that develops will help them both.
And I don't want to give any spoilers so feel reluctant to say anything at all about the plot. However the ending did stretch my credibility even further.

All through the book are the best bits, which are when Campbell describes something in beautiful detail that brings say Abdi's experience of being cold into vivid reality or the way the moon is bigger in Africa. It was the writing that kept hooked on the book.

What I have written here is simply my honest view. Other people see the book very differently.
I have since read that Karen Campbell based her characters on both people she has met, but mostly on cases her husband came into contact with during his volunteer work at the Scottish Refugee Council.
I have no idea how likely or unlikely the pairing in the book is. I gave my view that's all.
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on 12 March 2013
Having some knowledge about the Scottish Refugee Council and experiences of people there, there is no question that the plot of this book is believable, engaging, and truthful. Campbell has bravely and beautifully shown us a world that most turn a blind eye to. She gently but compellingly raises a significant issue that should be addressed.
The narrative structure- a meeting between Abdi and Deb each month- allows for character and relationship development. You really care about these people. They can be flawed, of course, but are honest. Abdi in particular is sensitive, gentle and while at times scared, also very open and hopeful. His and Deb's actions are believable- they are both experiencing grief, and coming through it together in a remarkable relationship. Abdi's daughter is a fantastic character, and brings back some of the sunshine he misses.
Some people who read this wont have a lot of experience with the plight of refugees and wont always be open to seeing it from another perspective. And that's okay. Campbell is not trying to convert. But to those readers who are open, this book is an incredibly moving read. I feel like I am a better person for having read it, as now I am a little more understanding and a lot less judgemental of people who's story I don't know. This is as close as you can get to walking in someone else's shoes, and I urge you to give it a go and see where that takes you.
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 March 2013
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Forty-something childless widow and former teacher Deborah 'Debs' Maxwell signs up to do voluntary work for the Scottish Refugee Council, and is appointed as mentor to Abdi Hassan and his four-year-old daughter Rebecca, both refugees from Somalia and more recently the Dadaab refugee camp in north-east Kenya. They meet once a month, Debs initially aiming to show Abdi the natural, historical and cultural sights, sounds and tastes of Glasgow - as well as the lochs and countryside beyond. These are principally Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Loch Lomond, The Tenement House, Scotland Street School Museum, The Scotia Bar, The Glasgow Tower, The Dale, The Barras, Scottish Parliament and Glasgow Cathedral. Over the course of the year, Deborah gets closer to the little girl, who until now had hardly spoken a word since arriving in Glasgow. There's something about her tragic past that doesn't quite ring true, and Deborah is determined to find out what it is.

I'm an admirer of author Karen Campbell's previous four novels The Twilight Time,After the Fire,Shadowplay and Proof of Life, built around the trials and tribulations of Inspector Anna Cameron, and Jamie and Cath Worth. I found it very difficult, reading her new novel, not to think about those books because I suppose I had become accustomed to a certain style of writing (and the concepts) and had become familiar and comfortable with it. 'This is Where I Am' is very, very different, and reflecting upon it I think I need to separate what it 'is' from what it does. As a former police officer, Karen Campbell naturally found it easy to write about crime and police procedurals, so in her first novels the 'what it is' and 'what it does' blended perfectly together.

It's not quite like that here. The story serves at least two purposes: to highlight the horrors of life in lawless states like Somalia and the not-much-better life in refugee camps like Dadaab, and to show off the best that Glasgow has to offer. In the comfort of our homes in Britain, where we moan about relatively inconsequential political issues that barely touch our lives, we only peek into the window of appalling deprivation of nations such as Somalia on Comic Relief night and such like, but it's a permanent way of life for those trapped there. So 'This is Where I Am' attempts to explain, by way of just one fictional family (but one inspired by a real-life one) the nightmare scenarios behind the refugees and asylum-seekers who find their way into the utterly different world of a city such as Glasgow. It shows how they are physically and verbally abused or insulted by local people, blind to the events that brought the refugees here in the first place. Meanwhile, at the beginning of every other chapter, there is a curious travel-guide-style introduction that offers a brief piece of history surrounding the various Glasgow locations, and how many of them provide free entry. It's an odd mixture, that's for sure.

But how does it work as a story, as entertainment fare? This is what I meant when I found myself separating what it is from what it does. It's a novel, a work of fiction, and for me it should be an entertaining read. I have to say, I didn't find it as gripping as any of the aforementioned Cameron/Worth novels. Interesting: yes, but gripping? Not really. I like it, but it was a close thing between giving it a 3-star rating for being 'okay'. Karen Campbell has taken a big risk, in my view, in heading in this very different direction and I'm not entirely sure it has worked. Most unusually for a writer who has demonstrated outstanding character creation and development in the past, it doesn't really hit home here. Abdi Hassan is a slightly complicated character from the reader's perspective. In theory we should feel deeply sorry for him, given his background and personal loss, but the deeper into the tale I went, the harder I found it to like him. I ended up feeling rather neutral towards him. As for Deborah, her own tragedies are rather better portrayed and it is easier to relate to them, but she too is somewhat inconsistent in reader appeal. I get the impression that both of these characters are based on real people that the author knows, and as is often the case, when you try to fictionalise a real person, you end up with half of one and half of the other. By comparison, in the four police procedural novels by this author, the characters seemed to be more conventional fictional creations manufactured from a blank piece of paper, and it worked very successfully. As for the story itself, basically Deborah's search for the truth and more, it wasn't executed entirely convincingly, and an important weak point was a rather half-hearted attempt to illustrate the sickening images of life in a UNHCR refugee camp.

Mixed feelings, then, for a brave new direction for this very talented writer. Her prose is very good, her ability to mix tragedy with dashes of indigenous Glasgow humour is another success, and perhaps above all she is trying to bring to our attention the terrible stories that lie behind every single asylum seeker and refugee. I wonder what her next book will be about? Whatever it is, I'll be reading it. She's too good to miss.
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on 13 March 2013
This book really moved me. One of my favourite things about it is the way two people that have both gone through very different traumas and feel they have lost everything manage to give each other something. Ultimately, they both have lost someone and throughout the book I am surprised by their relationship, not because it isn't 'believable' but because the interactions between these two characters is unique in that I have never thought about the interactions between two people like this. The story is what it is (beautiful) because of this unique character combination I think. Karen Campbell is so good at taking an idea that has come from a real life situation she understands, and developing it to produce a story that really reflects to us the real and complicated emotions that might be experienced and that many readers may never have come across. I think this is how she manages to change our perceptions, by helping us to even begin to understand emotions that really nobody outwith these situations could understand. But her story telling and beautiful words manage to transform this complexity into something we can relate to. The reflection and comparison of Deborah, this type of woman that many of us might know or even be able to relate to, to Abdi, this man we may hear about in the news or see in the street, helps us to understand Abdi's feelings. The truth that Campbell shows is that our emotions aren't simple, especially when a person has gone through so much trauma.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 December 2015
The role of European countries in welcoming - or rejecting - refugees is a critical issue at the moment (2015), so this novel (published before the refugee crisis in Europe escalated) is a timely one. The novel relates the developing friendship between a Somali refugee and a middle-class British volunteer for a refugee charity, who is assigned as his 'mentor'. Deborah, the 'mentor', is a Glaswegian former teacher who has been dealt a pretty bad hand in European terms, including the premature death of her husband following a terrible illness, the death of her child, and serious health problems. Whereas Abdi's experience of poverty, war and persecution is no more than typical for thousands in his country of origin, a scale of misfortune and misery that is hard to comprehend for those of us lucky enough to live in stable wealthy countries.

Both Deborah and Abdi narrate the chapters in the first person, alternating the voice between the two. Some of the chapters open with a short description of a Glasgow landmark, based on places they visit for meetings. It would have helped to have the narrator's name at the chapter heading - a small thing that would have just made reading that small bit easier. That said, the style is generally very easy to read apart from a couple of places where the characters, under extreme stress and trying to repress emotions/difficult memories allow their narrative to break down a little. This is only done occasionally, and for very short bouts, which is just as well as I did find it frustrating. Abdi's voice is well written in good English - the author sensibly avoids the temptation to pepper it with misspelt words or bad grammar, which would have been patronising. Of course, as the narrative is presumably his thoughts, it would not make sense for them to be incoherent.

Alongside Deborah and Abdi, there are a host of supporting characters, including Abdi's traumatised and silent four year old daughter, his neighbours - both the well meaning Mrs Coutts and the racist drunk who lives next door - and people that Deborah meets through her voluntary work. There are several sub-storylines about the fates of other refugees in the city, and about the city's homegrown homeless. But the topic is so huge there are many aspects that are never touched on, and it may have been better to either focus simply on Abdi's story, or to expand one of these sub-storylines into a more detailed one. As it was, they felt like throwaway snapshots that would have merited more time.

Towards the end, the story takes an unexpected turn and becomes quite gripping. I was rather surprised by the ending, which stretches credibility somewhat. That said, it wasn't what I imagined would happen when I was halfway or even three quarters of the way through. It doesn't offer any easy answers or glib solutions, which is surprising given that it's one of those books that generally makes you think well of most of humanity, full of decent people who perform surprising acts of kindness. There are some bad guys as well, but on the whole I'd say it was a 'feel good' story. It is an achievement to write a book that tackles an emotive topic sensitively and without sugar-coating things too much, whilst also enabling you to retain some hope for humanity.

Overall, this was an interesting and easy read, and certainly is very topical.
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VINE VOICEon 20 March 2013
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This novel should be read by every member of UKIP, the BNP and anyone else of that bigoted mind-set. Then again, they are the very people who wouldn't dream of picking it up, let alone reading and understanding it. So that is why all its anger, its outrage and its sense of injustice of the way asylum seekers are treated, not just in this country, which is bad enough but in those pockets of corruption that feed on the distress and destitution of others feels like it is preaching to the converted.

Abdi, a Somalian Christian, has ended up in Glasgow as an asylum seeker with his little daughter Rebecca, not through choice. He doesn't know what it is other than somewhere in 'Yookay'. He has initially been homed in a squalid eighth floor flat and left to get on with things and is supposed to be grateful. He is - but struggles to forget the horrors of his past. Officialdom is incomprehensible too him at first and his only support is the Scottish Refugee Council who eventually provide him with a 'mentor', Deborah. Debs (as Abdi comes to know her) is a volunteer. She is angry and bitter herself after having cared for her beloved husband through a long-asting slow decline towards death and after his death has chosen to help refugees because of an event that occurred when she visited apartheid-bound South Africa when she was first married.

Slowly and with faltering steps, both come to understand each other. Both are proud and prickly, especially Abdi who is fiercely intelligent and when his language skills improve is able to run rings round patronising petty-minded officials. (I wanted to cheer and clap when he puts an English teacher in her place!)But that comes much later. Not only does he have to adapt to living in a strange culture (after all, understanding Glasgow and its vernacular is hard enough for the English) he suffers an unsurprising mental breakdown. Abdi and his wife, Azila, were parted in the most violent circumstances in a Kenyan refugee camp. She was slaughtered before his eyes. He has flashbacks and nightmares. No wonder little Rebecca, who witnessed it all, has not spoken since. Debs is key in her coming out of her shell and it is Debs who learns that Rebecca knows something about her mother her father does not.

The novel then develops into a kind of race in which Debs experiences at first hand what it is like to live in the vast, squalid camp in Dadaad, Kenya.

The authors admiration for the Scottish Refugee Council, her utter contempt for the UK Border Agency, prejudice and racism are very much evident in this novel. Although I can see why and applaud her, it did feel much of the time as if I was being bashed over the head with a political hammer. And because of that, the lesser characters become stereotypes such as Debs neighbour, Naomi, who has no understanding of her Chechen au pair and her problems. Abdi and Debs are more realistically drawn but even they are more cyphers than real characters I could engage with. And the ending was far too much of a fairy-tale.(And at Christmas, too. Perlease.)

More to the point, it is far too long. At over 400 pages, much could be cut - especially all the 'travelogue' type descriptions of Glasgow. If I needed to know all that, I could have clicked on Wikipedia. It adds nothing to the shape and colour of the novel. Also, Debs makes two visits to Dadaad, Why not condense it into one? And the sub-plot about the deportation of a brilliant refugee worker is not fully developed or concluded.

So, this is a worthy novel through which the author's anger shines bright. But those people who choose to read this novel do not need to be persuaded about the iniquities of the current system and I can't see those who do will bother. Its heart is in the right place but, although it is not difficult to read (apart from the Glaswegian vernacular), the length and the hectoring tone does not make it the stonking read it should have been.
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on 27 June 2015
Karen Campbell was born in Paisley and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland. Both her mother and father worked in Strathclyde Police Force and following a degree at Glasgow University, Karen also joined the police, where she met her husband. Karen studied for the Creative Writing Master's Degree at Glasgow University. She is a vegetarian and lives in Galloway with her husband and two daughters. Karen Campbell has been best known, until now, as an accomplished proponent of Tartan Noir. She wrote a series of 4 well-received police crime novels featuring her main protagonist DCI Anna Cameron. I very much enjoyed those books. So, when This Is Where I Am was book of the month in my book group, I was thrilled.

However, this novel is a complete departure in style and subject matter for Karen Campbell. This Is Where I Am is a book of two voices. It tells the story of Abdi, a Somali asylum-seeker newly arrived in Glasgow with his young daughter, and of recently widowed Deborah, who has been assigned as mentor to help them settle in. I thought the situation of the recently bereaved woman mentoring the recently arrived refugee from Somalia worked well.this is where
This book was a beautifully crafted story, which was carefully to show empathy for refugees coming to live in the UK. It was written with both sensitivity and balance. The story weaves in and out from the present and the past, delving in the issues that lead to Abdi's travel to Glasgow with his young daughter, Rebecca but sometimes the story left me feeling flat, maybe helpless, when I felt I should have been more angry. The parallels between their fights with authority and their own individual grief also worked.

The differences in the attitudes of the Scottish people ranging from aggressive and bigoted to friendly and kind was very realistic. However, I must admit, that I did not see the end coming. I found it quite unbelievable. It was too neat for such chaotic lives. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed This Is Where I Am and am not surprised that the novel was selected as the BBC Radio Four Book at Bedtime.
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on 24 October 2013
As I read This Is Where I Am by Karen Campbell I couldn't help thinking of an old Indian saying:

'Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his mocassins.'

Abdi Hassan, a Somalian refugee, has been resettled in Glasgow with his four-year-old daughter, Rebecca, who hasn't said a word since they left their country. The Scottish Refuge Council allocates recently widowed Deborah Maxwell to be his mentor and the two begin an awkward friendship. Both have experienced tremendous trauma and loss. In many ways both have been cast adrift in unfamiliar territory and there are many misunderstandings as Abdi and Deborah learn to navigate their relationship. Then one day Rebecca starts to talk and what she has to say changes everything...

This Is Where I Am offers a well researched insight to the reality of an immigrant arriving in the UK who has no understanding of the language or culture. The isolation, the fear, the not knowing who to trust and the impact of inadvertently triggered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This beautiful novel is about the kindness of strangers, the cruelty of prejudice, the friendship to be found in unexpected places, the crippling fear of the unknown, the blight of ignorance, the power of love, the pain of guilt, the joy of hope and triumph over adversity. There is humour, illumination and an appreciation of the little things that count for a lot in life - a kind word, a friendly smile, a moment of mutual understanding and acceptance. Memories that you hope the characters can hold on to when the darkness of the past comes back to haunt them.

I had tears running down my face as I finished reading this powerful, compassionate and thought-provoking novel. The hope and acceptance in the final lines of this novel is simply breathtaking. I felt bereft by the end, as though I was leaving good friends behind.

I love novels that open my heart and mind to another person's experience of the world. By the time I turned the last page I felt like I had walked many miles through the often emotionally devastating, violent and horrific past of Abdi Hassan whose story is revealed gradually through a series of flashbacks. I know I will return to This Is Where I Am whenever I need to be reminded of what really matters in life.

With thanks to Circus Books for the review copy.
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 31 August 2013
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This book holds you from the first page to the last - it's over 400 pages but I still didn't want it to end. The story and back-story of Somalian refugee Abdi and his daughter Rebecca's first year in Glasgow and what brought them there, is gripping enough, but alongside we also have the story of his Refugee Council mentor Debs, recently widowed, financially stable, and not entirely sure that she is doing the right thing.

The construct is a clever one - Abdi and Debs meet once a month at different points around Glasgow and the countryside surrounding it, so that Abdi and four year old Rebecca can gain some understanding of the culture in which they find themselves. Their story and that of Debs, is built throughout the year and structured around these monthly meetings.

It's also a bang up to date criticism of the rigid, often senseless and heartless rules that dictate the lives of asylum seekers and refugees. Author Karen Campbell is a former policewoman, in describing the effects of the law on those affected she never rings a false note. Whilst the characters are fictitious, you know that real lives have been wrecked once again in the same way.

Not just the refugee's lives either; in a short, bitter passage Debs recounts how she received a letter declaring her severely disabled terminally ill husband fit for work and therefore ineligible for benefits. Meanwhile, her husband lay contorted by pain and doubly incontinent, as distracted by the letter, she failed to notice his immediate needs.

For all the tragedy that suffuses the book, the prejudice that Abdi is subjected to and the heartbreak of his past, the book is also full of humour, much of it the sharp black Glaswegian humour that suffuses that city. Not all though- Abdi's sometimes mistaken observations bring smiles; the neighbour he identifies as being called 'Bawbag', as that's what all Bawbag's friends refer to him as.

The ending was somewhat unexpected and enormously satisfying - leaving me to wonder 'But what happened next?' along with many others,I am sure. It's a wonderful book and Karen Campbell is definitely a major new Scottish writer.

What a film this would make ... A must-read.
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on 16 October 2013
Scottish author Karen Campbell has written a wonderful book that looks at love and loss as experienced by the two main characters, asylum seeker Abdi who arrives in Glasgow with his daughter Rebecca and nothing but a backpack between them, and the local woman, Debs, who becomes Abdi's mentor. Campbell writes of the Glasgow Abdi sees - the grandeur of some of the city's well-known landmarks and the stark, serene beauty he finds at Loch Lomond - inviting the reader into a wholly different and alien perspective and examines the everyday details that can make or break a life. How can one know about the need for gloves until fingers are frozen on a long walk to a supermarket carrying a tired child? How does one know what's in the packets on the shelves unless English is a known language? And there's the heartbreak of coming from the lawless, stinking Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya (the images Campbell draws will stay with me for a long time) to a Glasgow stair with a racist bully for a neighbour. The central relationship between Abdi and Debs (and Rebecca too) is delicately drawn, and we listen in to their thoughts as they tiptoe around protocol and cultural differences, neither wanting to cross any imaginary lines, and Debs in particular always worrying about the rules and regulations while finding a new raison d'etre, after the premature death of her beloved husband, as a mentor and charity worker. This is a real book: the people, places, pain and pleasures feel real and the story is ultimately incredibly moving. I could not put this down but the best part of it is that where once I'd have seen a refugee, I now see a person.
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