The Glass Collector is a quiet book. You read and you read and then you begin to worry that there isn’t enough of the book left for the big plot development. But as I thought this, it occurred to me that perhaps we didn’t need a big exciting bang. It never got boring (and I know that’s a dreadful ‘compliment’ to make) and it was quite restful to simply coast along.
Anna Perera has written the story about Aaron, a Christian 15-year-old living in Mokattam just outside Cairo. The Zabbaleen collect rubbish, and Aaron’s speciality is glass. He loves glass. He is good at glass, and never cuts himself when picking it up.
Aaron is an orphan, living with a not very kind stepfather and two stepbrothers. Things are bad to begin with, and they become worse. Their living more or less disappears, and Aaron’s stepbrother Lijah is cruel, the neighbour’s daughter Shareen teases him, and Aaron is secretly in love with Rachel, who looks after the horses.
Rachel wants to become a vet, and in any other book she would somehow find a way, despite her poverty. Many of the young people around Aaron have dreams. Shareen wants a rich and handsome young husband. Aaron’s friend Abe wants a jellyfish.
This book is more of a window on the lives of the people in Mokattam than a story, which might be why the Guardian’s reviewer was surprised Anna hadn’t made it a travel book instead. It’s just right as it is, and as Anna pointed out when I met her, she made most of it up. Hence the fiction label. She went to Cairo to research the lives of the Zabbaleen, but then she wove a story about them, removing many things she felt would have detracted from what she was trying to do.
It’s truly educational, and I hope it will make western readers produce less waste, and hopefully even make them want fewer things. Buy less, and recycle more. If sorting through rubbish turns you off it could be a good idea to generate less of it in the first place.
The end makes you feel quietly happy and satisfied. At least that’s how it was for me. We rarely get everlasting happy-ever-after in real life, so why expect it in every book we read? The Glass Collector has good and bad in it, just like real life. It’s not a bad thing to learn to appreciate what you have. It could always be worse.