Favourite books of 2017

Benjamin Law Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal

A hugely important analysis of how a big lie took hold to derail a progressive policy that had nothing to do with teaching schoolchildren how to strap on dildos and everything to do with harm reduction. Information from Beyond Blue confirms that LGBTI people in Australia have poorer mental health and higher rates of suicide than average, and statistics published by the Australian Human Rights Commission show that ‘80 per cent of homophobic bullying involving LGBTI young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their well-being and education’. Written with a measured tone even when describing outrageous calumnies, this essay investigates how an initiative to keep children safe came to be so shamefully misrepresented. Required reading for everyone interested in how sections of the media and politics can work together to further ignorance and intolerance.

George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo

There was just so much hype about George Saunders – ‘a genius!’ they gushed, not to mention that Booker Prize he won earlier this year – that I held off reading this, believing only disappointment could follow such high praise. However, having now read Lincoln in the Bardo I’m determined to read more of Saunders’s work. This is an extraordinary novel – fresh and profoundly moving. Yes, it’s a ghost story that turns on the death of President Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie, but read it for its very human story of grief, longing, delusion and hope — and its wonderful wit and flashes of the absurd. Saunders’s habit of putting a speaker’s name at the end of each piece of dialogue/thought was a little confusing at first but in retrospect I can see why he has chosen to treat the voices in this multi-voice narrative in this way. Haunting in very sense.

Adrian McKinty Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly

Nothing like a crime novel that begins with its hero digging his own grave … Adrian McKinty’s evocation of Belfast during the Troubles is both energetic and chilling, and evokes the complexity of personal allegiances in a city at war. The plot unwinds in a sprightly manner with strong characters and dark twists. I can only salute the judges of the Ned Kelly Awards for giving it a prize.

Kamila Shamsie Home Fire

The complexity of personal allegiances is also a theme of Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel, with the choices of Pavaiz Pasha, a young British man of Pakistani background, compromising his sisters in the eyes of the authorities – just as his jihadi father had done before him. This is a big novel and its themes are significant ones – how young men become seduced by extremism, and how those who love them most suffer for it. The novel is told by Pavaiz, his two sisters (the older, responsible Isma and Pavaiz’s beautiful twin Aneeka) and by father and son Karamat and Eamonn Lone. While the Lone and Pasha families are not quite the Montagues and Capulets, the relationship between Aneeka and Eamonn carries the story to its devastating conclusion.

Neal Drinnan Rural Liberties

This zesty tale is set in the small Australian town of Moralla, where the old Colchester place has been turned into an establishment called Rural Liberties, ‘a fresh new frontier for love and life’. The local children – and not a few of their parents – believe this is code for orgies. Drinnan has a lot of fun with small-town life, and some wonderful lines: the disappointed father who tells his new son-in-law, ‘You were certainly not what we had in mind for our daughter’s first husband’; the local publican who greets new customers with ‘Welcome to Moralla! Tidy Town two years running!’; and the husband and wife relationship experts, authors of the bestseller Are You Awake Love? who are in town to flog the sequel, Are You Still Awake Love? Yet the novel opens with a tragedy, the death of beautiful teenager Rebecca Moore, and beneath the lightness of touch are darker issues such as date rape, bigotry, alternative lifestyles and the ethics of reality television. But it’s also fun and hugely readable, even when the plot threatens to spin out of control.

This list originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 December 2017 in the article ‘NRB Editors on their favourite books of 2017’.  

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Kamila Shamsie Home Fire

What happens to those left behind when men go off to fight? This electrifying novel is Pakistan-raised, London-based Kamila Shamsie’s seventh. In her acknowledgements, she says she was inspired by Sophocles’ story of Antigone, the young woman who defies the king’s order that her brother remain unburied on the field of battle.

However, this story of the Pasha and Lone families in contemporary London, Syria, Pakistan and the US also has more than a touch of Romeo and Juliet.The power of family ties infuses the novel – family versus career, versus self-preservation, versus politics, versus jihad.

Home Fire, which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, opens with Isma Pasha being interrogated at London’s Heathrow Airport as she prepares to board a plane to the US, where she will undertake her PhD – studies interrupted by the deaths of her mother and grandmother that forced her to become a surrogate parent to her younger brother and sister, 12-year-old twins Pavaiz and Aneeka.

Now the twins are 19, old enough to fend for themselves. But first she must endure hours of intrusive questions from officials that range from “Do you consider yourself British?” (she was born and raised in London) to her views on the division of Iraq, suicide bombers, and The Great British Bake Off.

We soon learn that this interrogation is not simply because she is a Muslim, but because of the past actions of her father, and the more recent choices of her brother Pavaiz.

Her father died while being taken to Guantanamo. We are not told what drove Abil Pasha towards jihadism; Isma sees it as simply one of a succession of enterprises to which he turned his hand: “guitarist, salesman, gambler, con man, jihadist– but he was most consistent in the role of absentee father”.

The consequences for the family were not just the loss of a husband and father, but the attention of the police. On one occasion, the police take away a photograph album Abil Pasha has sent to Pavaiz with the inscription: “When you’re old enough, my son.” When it is eventually returned to the boy, the pictures of his father with his jihadist comrades have been removed.

Pavaiz is blessed with acute hearing and dreams of being a sound engineer. Aneeka feels the connection with her twin acutely, but now she is studying law she spends more and more time away from home. Pavaiz sees the break-up of their household as a kind of betrayal, a decision that has been made without him. So when Farooq appears, a man of “instant glamour” who speaks of his father as a hero who “understood that a man has larger responsibilities than the ones his wife and mother want to chain him to”, Pavaiz is ready to listen.

Entwined with this story of the Pasha siblings is the story of the Lone family. The Pashas regard controversial MP Karamat Lone with contempt for failing to help them find answers when Abil Pasha died, but now Karamat has been made the country’s first Muslim Home Secretary. His son Eamonn, a drifter living on his mother’s money, falls hard for the beautiful Aneeka.

From this moment the fates of the two families become bound together in an inevitable trajectory towards tragedy.

Shamsie’s last two novels have looped back and forth through history – from Nagasaki in 1941 to the US in 2002 in Burnt Shadows(shortlisted for the Orange Prize) and from Turkey in 515BC to Pakistan in 1930 in A God in Every Stone.

In contrast, Home Fires is compressed into a matter of months. Shamsie reveals the intimate – and conflicting – worlds of each of her five protagonists with enormous skill. The effect is more immediate and heartbreaking than any headline, and shows with devastating power how ordinary people can be caught up in the unthinkable.

This review was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 September 2017.