The New Republic is a dark satire about journalism and world politics, set in a fictitious Portuguese peninsula desperate for independence. It is important to realise upfront that this is a satire, as I think having that frame of reference helps when reading (I didn't realise until halfway through). I have seen this described as a 'satire about terrorism' - a description that would have put me off reading if I'd seen it beforehand. This is not a satire about terrorism - it is a satire about human society which happens to feature terrorism as a theme. At no point does this book belittle, glamorise or excuse the appalling human cost of terrorism. It is in no way disrespectful to those affected by terrorist incidents, and is not distasteful to read. In fact, it is a good example of how pointed humour can sometimes bring about a more honest and profound emotional response to an issue than any amount of more earnest writing.
The central idea of the novel - which doesn't become apparent until halfway through - is rather brilliant and original, one of those ideas you wish you'd thought of yourself. Shriver manages to write a story that is both funny - in a very dark way - and genuinely moving. The themes mean it would have been very easy to get wrong, but I think she manages to handle her subject sensitively. It is occasionally laugh out loud funny, but the humour is mostly a more subtle ironic type. Like all good parodies it manages to combine the frankly ridiculous (which is why you need to know it's a satire before starting) with enough basic truth about human nature to still ring true. It reminds me of Catch-22, one of my favourite novels, which also took potentially grave subject matter (World War II) and managed to make it both funny and sad.
This is very much a novel of two halves, with a massive twist partway through. The first half I found rather heavy going, and I wasn't at all sure I was enjoying it. The central character, Edgar, is not easy to like - although this is deliberate and part of the point. I didn't particularly like her writing style either - Shriver is very fond of using lots of long words, and can be over-descriptive, loading up sentences with adjectives. It's a book that does require a fair amount of concentration to read and I wouldn't recommend it for public transport or other environments with distractions, at least not for the first half. Sometimes it feels like it's trying to be too clever. I also found the dialogue a bit hard to believe - maybe it's just that I don't move in the right circles, but generally in my experience people don't go for in depth character dissections with people they've literally just met. The first half of the book is very much about setting things up, and I found the endless pages of Edgar angsting about his childhood crush and habit of falling into the thrall of more powerful men rather tedious. Shriver uses a device to move the plot along of having her protagonist engage in long imaginary conversations with his disappeared predecessor, which I found annoying at first but on reflection was perhaps preferable to the pages of explanatory prose she'd have had to use otherwise.
Once the halfway point is passed however, it becomes a different beast. The plot moves on apace and it becomes genuinely gripping and intriguing. Edgar improves with familiarity and the reader is drawn into his world. This is where the moral dilemmas implicit in the storyline become really interesting and nuanced, and where the humour is darkest and funniest. There are some real shocks to come, and the last few chapters are real heart-in-the-mouth stuff. All the sometimes tedious setting up of the first half really pays off in the second part. It's a book that could be read on several levels, a good choice for a reading group, and is thought-provoking. I'll never look at the news in quite the same way again, for one thing. In particular it shines a light on the role of the media in world events and global politics, and although it is set in the 90s before the internet had such a big world role as it does now, I still think it is salient to the modern era.
Overall, I give this four stars because of the difficult beginning and my personal feelings about the writing style. But it deserves full marks for originality, daring and a thrilling second half. I would recommend it in particular to readers with an interest in politics or journalism, but anyone who enjoys 'literary' fiction will probably enjoy this, or at least find it thought-provoking and interesting. It's not exactly light reading, and you do need to be prepared to persist through the less inspiring first 150 pages. But in the end, it's worth it.