Bernard Ashley

Orchard Books


Oct 2006

If I were still a teacher, this book would be a tempting choice to get my class engaged in a whole number of fields. Geography, history, current affairs and politics, evolving use of English language’ any of these might be approached through DOWN TO THE WIRE.
We’re in West Africa here; a fictitious but very recognisable country somewhere in the region of Nigeria and Ghana. Near the coast we have the wealthier part of the nation, the government, the dominant tribe, the strongest western influences. Inland, we have poorer, often-resentful tribal minorities, sharing their cultural and religious allegiances with those in neighbouring countries rather than with their own government and fellow citizens. Yet, as in so many west African states, the nation’s wealth is dependent on one or two commodities. It might be oil, or precious metals, or cocoa: in this case it is HEP, generated through a vast inland dam project (surely modelled on the Volta) and providing power that can be sold abroad, as well as driving domestic industry. But, typically, this resource lies within the territory of the tribal minorities. So when the question of independence for these minorities comes up, the government eyes its precious resource and is more than a little dismayed.
It’s a model that recurs constantly, one made possible by western colonization, non-tribal borders and further interference long after any occupying power has fled. The reliance on single resources and erosion of traditional subsistence economies, the wish to exploit natural resources, the wish to sell arms to both the minority ‘freedom fighters’ (themselves often sponsored or controlled by fellow tribesmen in other countries) and to the governing troops, the demented wish to sell nuclear technology to unstable powers (is there any other sort?)’ this is what drives the western take on so many developing countries.
So, into this bubbling mess drop Ben Maddox, a UK reporter, sent with his cameraman by a canny news editor to get a scoop on possible war and humanitarian catastrophe. Add also a promising young footballer, one of the tribal minority, under conflicting pressures to make his name on the lucrative world stage and to stick by his cultural and religious roots, to keep excellence at home. Stir in a ‘terror’ group that kidnaps children to turn them into soldiers. As a finishing touch add Israelis and others, possibly sniffing out a nuclear market; an Irish ex-football star, ostensibly talent-scouting; a western mercenary, with his eyes on power and wealth.
Ashley’s real coup here is that he sets this all up and makes it totally accessible to a teen audience, spinning an easy-read thriller-type plot that is told through e-mails, news reports, the diary of a kidnapped girl, football commentaries and texts, as well as short chunks of traditional narrative. Some of the main characters are a tad two-dimensional or unengaging ‘ there is a whiff of the boys’ adventure stories of yesteryear – but as a whole, the book is gripping and sickeningly realistic as we watch Ben and his colleague get drawn steadily across the line that keeps newspeople ‘neutral’.
A recommended, original read, tweaked from four to five chicks by its huge relevance.

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