Ellen Wiles introduces her debut novel, The Invisible Crowd. This is a fearless and compelling novel about loyalty, kindness, and the moments which define our lives.
Believe it or not, I didn’t set out to write a topical novel. But with daily headlines about Brexit underpinned by immigration fears, and a refugee crisis that shows no signs of abating, The Invisible Crowd couldn’t be more current.
The ‘imaginer’ of the novel is Jude, a barrister. When an asylum case lands on her desk, she notices that she shares a birth date with the Eritrean client, Yonas, yet couldn’t have had a more different life. She gets drawn into his case and imagines the dry legal documents transforming into stories.
Like Jude, it was working on an Eritrean asylum appeal that inspired me to write this novel. Several things about it struck me hard.
One was that I knew absolutely nothing about Eritrea: it has an extraordinary history as a young country formed after a 30-year battle for independence, which it won against all the odds with its soldiers wearing plastic sandals, but then its sparkling dreams quickly faded and the world’s most repressive dictatorship took hold.
I realised I knew so little about the incredible human dramas of the individuals who’d had to flee Eritrea, survive terrifying journeys to get here, and were now living in their thousands all around me in London, and yet were largely invisible to most.
I felt furious about the chasm of language between asylum seekers’ experiences and the ways in which they were being written about. On the one hand, the legal documents I had were dry and factual. On the other hand, all the tabloid headlines painted asylum seekers as swarms of liars and scroungers. Both felt so far from the truth. I looked around for novels about asylum seekers, but at the time there were very few. So I decided I had to try to write one.
We first meet Yonas working in a shellfish factory near Grimsby, alongside Gebre, his best friend from home. Before long he escapes and makes his way to London where he tries to forge a new life. Every other chapter is narrated by a different person he meets in the UK, including a bin man, a teacher, an artist, a Conservative politician, and a Home Office interviewer. Each chapter opens with a real tabloid headline. The finale is a tribunal hearing to determine Yonas’s future. Will he be allowed to stay?
2nd March 1975
In Asmara, Eritrea, Yonas Kelati is born into a world of turmoil. At the same time, on the same day, Jude Munroe takes her first breath in London, England.
Thirty Years Later
Blacklisted in his war-ravaged country, Yonas has no option but to flee his home. After a terrible journey, he arrives on a bleak English coast.
By a twist of fate, Yonas’ asylum case lands on Jude’s desk. Opening the file, she finds a patchwork of witness statements from those who met Yonas along his journey: a lifetime the same length of hers, reduced to a few scraps of paper.
Soon, Jude will stand up in court and tell Yonas’ story. How she tells it will change his life forever.
Fearless, uplifting and compelling, The Invisible Crowd is a powerful debut novel about loyalty, kindness – and the brief moments which define our lives.
The Invisible Crowd is out now.