The Oldest Game by Sue Leger

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The Oldest Game by Sue Leger

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Moving and eye-opening story of a Romanian woman trafficked into Amsterdam and forced to work as a prostitute. Sue Leger gives us all pause for thought here.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 140 Date: June 2016
Publisher: AuthorHouse
ISBN: 1524635014

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Marta and her family are struggling to make ends meet in post-Ceausescu Romania. So when an opportunity comes up to train as a care worker for old people in the Netherlands, Marta rushes to apply. It would suit her, as she is used to looking after her own grandmother, and it would enable her to send money home and help out her parents. But when she gets to Amsterdam, Marta finds there is no job with the elderly waiting for her. Instead, there are men who rape her and then sell her into the sex industry.

Piet is Marta's pimp. He sets her up in one of the red light district "windows" and takes all the money she earns. He threatens to hurt her family if she runs away and a couple of kicks and punches aimed Marta's way convinces her that he means it. But Piet has problems of his own. Both wife and daughter are ill. Piet doesn't cope with stress well and the violence inherent in his working life tends to spill into his home life when things don't go as he wants them to.

Sebastien knew Marta back in Romania. He is having a break in Amsterdam with some university friends when he catches sight of Marta in her window. He calls in to check that it's really her and is shocked by the tale she relates. Sebastien is determined to rescue Marta from this life of modern slavery but his visit earns her a beating from Piet so bad that she needs hospital treatment.

Will Marta make it back to Romania?

The Oldest Game is a short book, coming in at under one hundred and fifty pages. But it packs a great deal into its slimness and it will give you pause for thought. First of all, there is a very helpful prologue detailing the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. This sets the scene well and helps the reader understand exactly why Marta would be so keen to pursue a career abroad.

But most importantly, the realities of the sex trade and the trafficking that supplies it are laid bare. Marta thinks she is applying for a worthwhile job taking care of old people, that she will earn good money in a more prosperous country, and be able to send money home to her family in a Romania struggling after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. But she isn't. The agency is just a front. Trafficking operations are sophisticated and it's easy for anyone to fall victim to them.

You might think that those "windows" in the red-light districts of Amsterdam are filled by women who have freely chosen this work. That the installation of police alarms in each booth means that these women are safe. Not so. Marta, and many like her, are not safe. They are in as much danger from the men who run the windows as they are from their clients, as Marta discovers.

And it doesn't stop there. What about the attitudes of men - as seen here through one of Sebastien's friends - who suspect women of complicity in their abuse, or use the "windows" despite knowledge of the possibility of coercion and trafficking? And then there's the bureaucracy that makes it seem as though even the people trying to help you are making it as difficult as they can. Marta, given her language difficulties, runs up against this several times in the book.

We like to think that we are better than we were - about slavery, about sex work, about women's rights. And we are better. But not better enough. The Oldest Game understands this. And communicates the message very well through a short, but absorbing novella. I very much liked that Leger also examined the brutalising effect this industry can have even on the runners and the pimps. And I'm even more glad that the story ends on a note of hope. Because we need hope so that we can do better going forward.

You might also look at Purge by Sofi Oksanen, a harsh but vivid novel of two women equally hiding from troubled pasts. Big themes of the ex-USSR and the sex industry focus on the horrors borne by women inside a subtle thriller narrative. It's a superb and powerful achievement. You might also appreciate Everything You Ever Wanted by Rosalind Wyllie.

You can read more about Sue Leger here.

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