BOOK REVIEW: Dalila by Jason Donald

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Dalila by Jason Donald is a very relevant novel.

It follows the eponymous lead in her journey as an asylum seeker from Kenya to the United Kingdom. Each stage of a refugee’s journey is covered, from the initial flight from horror to the cold and brutal bureaucracy of the asylum process.

During the wearying process Dalila meets other refugees, some lucky enough to be granted leave to remain, others less fortunate. Through these interactions the reader understands the variety of backgrounds those seeking asylum come from, their stories, and therefore sees them less as an undifferentiated mass.

Dalila also meets numerous British people who are part of the asylum system, administrators, enforcement agents, lawyers and charity employees. These meetings show us something very different; the callous, illogical nature of the UK’s immigration rules and practices.

Simply written, yet powerful, Dalila is, I think, an important novel, and one that should be read by anybody wanting a better understanding of the immigration process. It could potentially be seen as a companion piece to A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg, which covers the refugee experience just as compellingly, albeit from a different viewpoint.

If I was to have criticism of the work, it would be at times it does feel somewhat polemical. However, this is an area where a forceful polemic is probably needed. If it makes even a few policy makers rethink their decisions, it will have done its job.

Jason Donald


Jason Donald was born in Dundee and grew up in Pretoria.  His first novel Choke Chain was published by Jonathan Cape and was shortlisted for both the Saltire First Book of the Year and the Author’s Club Debut Novel of the Year. His second novel, Dalila was published earlier this year and is a heart wrenching story of a woman’s harrowing journey through the UK asylum system.

Interview – Jason Donald

What compelled you to write about asylum seekers? What research went into it?
I was teaching ESL and the majority of my students were asylum seekers. Some students struggled to attend class because they had to report to the Home Office. Other students simply went missing and we later learned they had been the victims of ‘dawn raids’ where the UK Border Agency had broken into their homes and forcibly removed them. I soon discovered that the Reporting Centre was an unassuming building only three blocks down the road from my flat and that many of my students were housed in my neighborhood. Learning this was like uncovering an extraordinary parallel world being lived out right on my doorstep. I decide to explore that world. I interviewed my neighbors and students. I enrolled in a training course with the Scottish Refugee Council. I volunteered at the Unity Centre: a charity set up support asylum seekers and refugees and, once a week, I visited people in the Dungavel Detention Centre. I spent a year doing this: listening, learning, documenting. I collated all the information I’d gathered and used it as the basis for my novel DALILA.

How has your personal experience shaped the way you think about immigration and refugees?
I’m British, but I grew up in South Africa. When I was 17 years old, my family returned to Scotland. I experienced intense culture shock and felt totally dislocated, misunderstood and alone. It took me years to adapt to British culture and there are days when I still feel like I don’t really belong. Of course, I’m not saying that my story is at all on par with asylum seekers who are fleeing for their lives. I merely try to use my experience as a window through which to empathize with others who find themselves living in limbo.

What’s one thing/stereotype about migrants that you’d want to dispel?
I take issue with the way the word ‘migrant’ is applied. It’s often used to differentiate people as being part of a lower class. ‘Expat’ is a word wealthy white people use to distance themselves from other immigrants. In fact, expats are economic migrants.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion about the “Migrant Crisis” but no talk of an “Expat Crisis”. Doesn’t that strike you as strange? Make no mistake, those who champion curbing migration are primarily concerned in curbing the movement of poor people. While at the same time, middle class and rich people are actively encouraged to spend a gap year travelling, or buy a holiday home abroad, or retire overseas with little or no discussion about the effect they are having on the local culture.

What are some of the other literary works which helped you better understand the immigration situation?
“A Marker to Measure Drift” by Alexander Maksik. This novel unsettled and inspired me. On one level it’s a simple, contained narrative about Jacqueline, a homeless Liberian refugee trying to survive among tourists on a Greek island. More deeply, the book is character study of a proud, traumatized woman dislocated from her past and the world around her.

I sometimes worry that the back stories of refugees can be misjudged as a great resource for writers. (ie. The story of a dangerous journey, or a family saga, or an adventure story) However, Maksik understands that people aren’t simply a product of the events that have happened to them. Characters are defined by their small day to day decisions in the present. Maksik’s novel is a high-stakes yet delicate portrait of his character’s inner state and how she chooses to come to terms with herself and her past. It’s a story about wanting to continue with life.

Dalila was published by Jonathan Cape on 19th January 2017.

You can purchase a copy of Dalila from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:




To discover more about Jonathan Cape click here

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Review by Joseph Surtees


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