They appear out of the blue on the Ramsgate shore. Naked, red-skinned, speaking a language that is not English, hugging each other. How are the locals going to react in this post-pandemic world? Fortunately they are accompanied by the enigmatic Professor Juan der Tal. With his help, and the enlightened advocacy of the high school head teacher, these people are accepted into the community. They prove themselves surprisingly intelligent, learning English is no problem; they’re happy to take on the menial jobs. But they are different and, while most locals make an effort to accommodate them, there are those, notably the members of Put Britain First, who wish to expel them.
Set in 2030, the allegory to our present time is pretty clear, with Gee demonstrating her continued engagement with contemporary issues. I’ve been reading her work since the publication of The Ice People in 1998, when she, somewhat ahead of the curve, broached the subject of climate change. The White Family, which followed the murder of Stephen Lawrence, looked at racism head on. With too much clarity for some. Gee has said that that novel which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize effectively stymied her career. Maybe so, but it didn’t stymy her courage. Racism is an obvious theme of The Red Children, and the subject of climate change returns too. The red children are refugees twice over. In the current instance, from the heat in their homeland, Gibraltar, where they have been living for centuries in underground caves, their refuge from homo sapiens.
You read that right. For these refugees are Neaderthal survivors (clues being their large heads and the professor’s name); the idea coming from the fact that the first Neanderthal was not discovered in Germany’s Neander Valley, but in Gibraltar’s Forbes Quarry. So perhaps Gee’s premise isn’t as fantastical as first seems.
What is fantastical considering certain contemporary majority (?) British viewpoints is the overall tolerance of those arriving via the Channel. The irony, of course, being that the UK is already a mish-mash of foreignness: Romans, Vikings, Normans … A point reinforced by the red children stealing a Viking ship to sail home when the time comes to save their cave-dwellings from being turned into a tourist attraction.
There’s a worthy agenda at the heart of The Red Children, but Gee is novelist enough to stop the reader choking on it. The relationship between two ravens (Ramsgate in Anglo-Saxon is Hræfnesgeat or Ravensgate) provides moments of light relief. These birds also act as detached observers to the human / Neanderthal interactions. And let it not be said that Gee doesn’t know how to build tension to a crescendo in which even the crumbling southern coastline of Britain has a crucial reconciliatory (!) role to play. If there’s an unexpected angle, Maggie Gee will find it.
Saqi Books specialises in trade and academic books on The Middle East and North Africa, Also in translations to English of new and classic Arabic literature. The Red Children is published by Telegram, Saqi’s imprint for new and classic international writing.