I am writing this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you’re looking for reviews, I recommend you check her amazing site here), and I thank her and the author for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. By the way, personalising the ARC copy for the reviewer is a particularly nice touch. Thanks!
I was intrigued by the description, the title (oh, that title), and also the cover of this book. The topic is one that interests me, and I’m sure I’m one among many who have become increasingly alarmed by the situation of asylum seekers all over the world. Although due to my location I’m more familiar with the happenings in the Mediterranean area, this book set in a fictional country (although most readers will reach their own conclusions as to the author’s inspiration for Furtivus, and she openly discusses it on her website) highlights the fact that things are not that different elsewhere (or perhaps that the differences are more cosmetic than substantial).
It’s difficult to discuss the merits of this book separately from its subject. As a politico-social satire, the beauty is in the way it sends up the situation and it pulls up a distorting mirror to the main character, Peter, who is a composite of the worst “qualities” of politicians and public figures whose take on the subject of the asylum seekers’ plight is the hardest of hard-lines and, on top of that, don’t hesitate on personally profiting from the issue (and not only at a political level). I’ve talked before about books whose main character is nasty and despicable, and how reader might find it counterintuitive at first, but in this genre of political satire, this is to be expected. If you’re looking for a book where you can identify and cheer the main character, and you want a hero to follow, please, don’t read this book. Peter is thoroughly dislikeable. The author chooses to tell the story in the third-person, and although at times we are offered an omniscient (observer’s) point of view, which gives us a bit of a break from being inside of Peter’s head (and his rather disgusting body as well) while at the same time clarifying things and giving us an outsiders perspective, most of the time we experience things from Peter’s point of view, and let me tell you, both mentally and physically, it is not a nice place to be.
There are other characters and even one, Jeremy, who is the complete opposite to Peter, and most readers will like, but they don’t play a big part in the story, and although in the case of Jeremy, he is there to show that other options and points of view exist, for the most part we don’t know them in their own right, as true people, but only as obstacles or points of friction for Peter, and that is at it should be, because it reflects perfectly the policies the real-life counterparts of the protagonist formulate and/or adhere to. Only this time he is not in charge, and he does not like it one little bit.
There is a fair amount of telling in the book (the character is forever running his schemes in his mind, feeling self-important and thinking about his “achievements”, and later on, feeling sorry for himself); the author is wonderfully descriptive when it comes to explaining what is happening in Peter’s body, how he sees things, and there are many moments when the books is almost cinematic (oh, the dreaded red buttons, and the feel of his clothes as they degenerate over 24 hours). Peter is a man who judges others by their appearance, and he is very fastidious when we meet him, moaning at everything that is not right to his liking. Self-centred doesn’t quite capture the degree of his egotism, and the little bits of personal information we gather from his rambling mind do nothing to justify his inflated sense of ego.
The plot of the story is simple, and it is clearly explained in the description. Imagine what would happen if somebody who is responsible for making decisions about the refugee policy in a country (and let’s say his policies are less than generous and welcoming), ended up detained at an airport in a foreign country who does not recognise his status, does not accept his money, does not speak his language (or barely), and, basically, does not care an iota about him and does not see him as a person but as a nuisance repeatedly trying to get into the country uninvited. If you think that sounds like he’s got his comeuppance, well, you’d be right, and if you, like me, think that going through a bureaucratic Kafkian nightmare must be hell, I’d recommend you read this book.
The book is not a page-turner in the usual sense. There are many moments in the book when time drags for Peter, and Neofield makes this experience vivid to the reader. Many things happen in the book, but a lot of it is also spent waiting for the nightmare to end. Let me tell you that I loved the ending, that although understated, I thought was perfect.
The novel is full of quotable moments, but one of my favourites must be a conversation when Peter is trying to explain to the security guards (and it’s not his first encounter with the woman in charge) the nature of the blueprints he carries. The fragment is too long to share in its totality, but I thought I’d give you a taster of it, and also of the reply of the guard (whom I love).
‘It’s our Offshore Processing Centre.’
‘It’s where illegal immigrants-‘
‘You mean refugee?’
‘No, boat people. Queue jumpers.’
The guard’s English was even poorer than Peter had realised, if he had to explain the difference. ‘It’s where they are held for processing.’
‘You process their claim?’
‘Well, not exactly-‘
‘What you do?’
‘Mainly we just hold them there.’
‘Ah, yes. We had also. Long time ago. Concentration camp. This electric fence, no?’
‘No, no. It’s a Courtesy Fence. And it’s not a camp. It’s a Concentration Centre. I mean, Detention Centre. I mean, Processing Centre.’…
The conversation carries on for a while, but I had to share the guard’s summing up of her understanding of the situation (after she tells him he must have taken drugs because of the type of things he is saying):
‘Then why you talk crazy? This,’ she said, pointing back at the plans, ‘is not a picture of house. Is tent. This,’ she rolled up the blueprint and slammed it on the desk, ‘is not process centre if you no process. And four year is not ‘temporary’.’
Be this a warning to all spin doctors.
The novel’s description already mentions some writers that might come to mind on reading this book. As a political satire, Swift comes to mind, and I must say that the main character and some of his problems reminded me of the protagonist of Ian McEwan Solar, at least in the early part of the book. And the fixation of the character with his belongings reminded me as well of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. But you can read it and make up your own mind about it. I recommend it to people interested in the subject of the politics of immigration and seeking asylum in many Western countries, especially if looking for a critical and analytical take on it, which is at the same time sharply and painfully funny and entertaining. You’ll love to hate Peter, and the book is particularly suitable for book clubs, as there is much to discuss and mull over, both in the book itself and in the subject it deals with. The author even offers a guide for readers belonging to book clubs and shares some of the sources she used as an inspiration, and you can access them here. I don’t know what the author plans to write in the future, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on her, and I hope plenty of people read this book, and it makes them think.