9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Terrorism and journalism satire in a disappointing re-visit to an earlier work
, 11 Jun. 2012
This review is from: The New Republic (Hardcover)
Lionel Shriver adds a beard-shaped appendage to Southern Portugal in "The New Republic" and immediately has it fighting for independence, taking a wry look at terrorism as well as the ethics of the international press corps. After a series of international terrorism acts, the "Os Soldados Ousados De Barba", or the SOB for short, have gone quiet at the same time as charismatic journalist Barrington Sadler has vanished without a trace. In steps insecure former lawyer Edgar Kellogg to Barrington's post: Kellogg on the hunt for serial killers, as it were.
Set in pre-9/11 times, the Portuguese are still using the Escudo setting it at some indistinct time in the past, although economic cynics may suggest that the currency may equally suggest a time in the future. Shriver adds a refreshingly candid author's note to the book, noting that it was written before her critically lauded "We Need To Talk About Kevin". She acknowledges that pre-"Kevin", her sales record was "poisonous" and the book was rejected by several publishers. Then with the 9/11 events, a book that treats terrorism lightly was perhaps in questionable taste. But if 9/11 temporarily hindered the book's potential, in a form of literary karma, the book's other target, the disreputable behaviour of the press, makes this even more salient to British readers in light of the ongoing Levison enquiry into press standards.
This begs several questions. Is a book that treats terrorism with a light touch now "OK"? Were the initial rejections correct or were they blind to what the prize givers saw in the writer of "We Need To Talk About Kevin"?
I certainly didn't find it offensive although some readers may still think this is in poor taste. What is more dated is the view of Americans as seeing terrorism as "somebody else's problem" and her revisions of the book have not materially addressed this. A large part of the issues in her fictitious Barba region are to do with Arab immigration, and the repeated referral to these immigrants as "rag heads" is, at best, not exactly helpful. The issues remain if anything more pressing now though and the strength of the satire is that it takes real issues and takes them to extremes.
In one of the aspects that works particularly well, an epilogue of search engine articles that updates what happened to the characters and to Barba, Shriver cannot resist a 9/11 mention which seems to go against her expressed hope that "sensibilities have grown more robust". For any reader on the fence about offence, this will surely nudge them over.
But certainly in comparison with "Kevin" it lacks the psychological twists and depth. The characters are all very stereotypical. At heart an unconfident not-very-nice man wants to be like a supremely confident not-very-nice-man who in turn doesn't want to be lauded by others. There's little depth of character and Egdar's driving force is largely attributed to childhood obesity. I wasn't convinced that his sob story would lead to this SOB story. Too much of the narrative is over-written too which affects the pace of the book.
It's certainly not a bad book. At times Shriver takes moral questions and drives them to amusing ends in a way that is thought provoking and in part probably not far from the truth. She has an extensive and rich vocabulary and at times this jars a little with the lightness of the plot development. As Shriver also notes in her acknowledgments, it's also quite a "boys' story" both in subject and treatment. It would, in my view, have benefitted from a little more emotional depth to it.
I found the subject matter interesting and some of the ideas amusing, but ultimately I was disappointed. Prizes for subsequent deserving books don't necessarily mean that publishers were necessarily wrong in their views on earlier works, although equally books of far less merit do pass through the mesh.
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