Review: Here Upon the Tide

Reviewed by Anne Ingram

Author: Blair McMillan. Reviewer: Anne Ingram. There are difficult themes in Here Upon the Tide – refugees and their need for a safe home, the loss of a parent, depression and mental health. These matters impact the characters deeply but never weigh the book down. Blair McMillan has explored each theme with understanding and compassion… June 2023 release

Overcoming the huge challenges life has thrown at these two likeable teens is at the heart of this exciting novel. That, and the importance of human connection, openness, courage and compassion.

Amir, in war-torn Syria, is forced to try and escape from his country. He must leave his settled loving family and the promise of what was to be a bright future. Milly has lost her mother and her home in the Canterbury earthquakes. She is also the subject of bullying and feels isolated and friendless.

Both teens do what they must in order to survive, Amir through immense courage and Milly by shutting people out of her life. What keeps Amir going is the hope his parents have for him and his faith in his Moslem religion. Milly’s saving grace is her love of surfing and paddleboarding which frees her from her painful memories.  Readers will enjoy the descriptions of her paddleboarding exploits.

What brings these two young people together is a tour de force of the author’s imagination. Tales of smugglers unloading their loot off the coasts of New Zealand are not unheard of. But a refugee from war-torn Syria cast adrift on to the Canterbury shores? Why not? Cargo ships frequently travel to the port of Lyttelton. The account of Amir’s desperate escape from Syria and his hazardous journey to the other side of the world, hidden deep in a boat’s hold, is gripping and his arrival off Boulder Bay completely credible.

Syria, with its increasingly toxic war where ordinary people suspected of being rebels have their cities and towns repeatedly bombed, buildings reduced to rubble and people killed, is quite different to peaceful Christchurch. Yet, here too, buildings have been destroyed, people have lost their lives and their homes and nothing is as it was before the earthquake. Both Amir and Milly carry the trauma of what they have been through, feel they can trust no one and rely only on themselves to get through each day.

That is, until their unlikely meeting, where a near-drowned Amir must trust that Milly will rescue him and Milly must trust that Amir will do what she tells him if they are to survive. Trust is in short supply subsequently though as Milly wonders if Amir could be a terrorist and Amir fears that Milly might hand him over to the authorities. But trust gradually grows between them as Amir realises the extent to which Milly goes to help him while Milly, in turn, becomes aware how freeing it is to break open her shell and feel empathy for someone else. In short, they each save the other.

Both Amir and Milly are well drawn. We learn about Amir’s background early on while Milly’s circumstances are related in flashbacks throughout the novel. The effects of the war in Syria, while horrific, are never sensationaIised. We learn of them only through Amir’s eyes and through his own experiences. I also appreciated how, for Milly, both the physical (the landmarks) and emotional after-effects of the earthquake are always present in the background. A fact of life. Amir and Milly show enormous courage and resilience. Amir’s reward is a new life and safety, Milly’s is being treated with respect and inclusion by others, both lacking before Amir’s unlikely arrival.

There are difficult themes in the story – refugees and their need for a safe home, the loss of a parent, depression and mental health.  These matters impact the characters deeply but never weigh the book down. The author has explored each theme with understanding and compassion and despite the predicaments Amir and Milly find themselves in, hope never quite deserts them.

The language used is at an appropriate level for YA – there is no talking down. The chapters are short and once the story takes off, the action is fast-paced, suspenseful and thrilling. Recommended for readers of 12 and up.

Reviewed by Anne Ingram