This is a novel that is neither comfortable nor comforting to read. However, it probably should be read by everyone who has contact with any person under eighteen. Perhaps it should be a text book in all education courses as well.
With such a title, the book begins with a burst of aggression: “I’d been good for nearly a week. Only one fight; it must have been a record for me.” Billy is the speaker and is seen as a particular problem because she is a fourteen–year-old girl. However, her care worker, Hannah, believes there is a reason for Billy’s fury: Billy cares too much about the way her younger siblings are being exploited by an addicted mother but she has been separated from her family by the system. Rob is the twenty-first version of Billy Bunter but with none of the jollity. Rob’s step-father loves to bully his entire family but takes particular pleasure in crushing Rob who is concerned for his younger brother but is frustrated in his attempts to protect him.
As a contrast, Chris attends a grammar school and has an intact family. However, he has not done any homework for four years. There is an excellent reason for this but it takes Hannah to discover it, as Rob slides down the educational hierarchy.
If this synopsis sounds like unrelieved gloom, do not fear: there is a great deal of quite ferocious humour from all three main characters imbedded in their colourful language. Burgess has very adroitly allowed us to see just how appalling the behaviour of each adolescent is – and then gradually allows us into their secrets. Anyone who has taught knows there are students, often the quietest ones, who carry burdens of such enormity that we wonder how they can survive.
This week I took some of my students to play with a group of pre-schoolers who come from what is statistically one of the most disadvantaged areas of Australia, yet those same children are rich in the quality of all their teachers. We came away humbled by the miracles the young teachers routinely perform. The same can be said of Hannah who is not always angelic and who sometimes loses her patience with her charges but who keeps on being certain that teenagers like Billy can find ways out of their prisons. Those real teachers and the Hannahs of our society should be revered for the brilliant and usually unacknowledged work they do.
The rich vocabulary of the characters means this book could probably not be used as a class room text. However, I intend to press it on to many of my senior students as a Related Text for Area of Study: Belonging. With some warning about the depictions of violence, it could be highly recommended for Wide Reading groups or Literature Circles
I do not know of a book by Melvin Burgess that I do not admire and Kill All Enemies reinforces my respect for him and his challenging books. He energises rather than soothes his readers.