Top critical review
Really disliked the obvious political bias
on 18 October 2016
My greatest problem with this, and I'm surprised that I seem to be the first one to mention it, is the heavy handed overly politicised nature of the narrative. It seems that the author wanted to write a piece of pro refugee propaganda, and whilst she achieved it in spades, it detracts from the value and worth of the novel. To excuse the pun, it has been written in such black and white terms. There is next to no shades of grey, no real life nuances, no balance or understanding of opposing views. And that's a shame, and as such means the book pales in comparison with the far more sophisticated works of the likes of Salmon Rushide, VS Naipaul or Zadie Smith.
So basically anyone and everyone who holds traditional, right-wing or Conservative views are portrayed as being racist. But not only are they racists, but by being right wing they naturally display all kinds of other awful character traits such as being spiteful, rude, condescending, gossiping etc. the list goes on. The brother for example is a thinly veiled Nigel Farage on steroids who not only disapproves of horrible foreigners, but of course is also a nasty capitalist intent on destroying local businesses, making vast and selfish profits in his business and destroying the environment with his schemes to boot. He is horrible to his wife and spoilt children; he is of course horrible to our loveable liberal intellectual poet, Ria. On reading this brother's portrayal, I was given pause to think about the recent EU referendum result, especially the main thrust of it being that great swaths of the country voted against the received patrician metropolitan view. It does seem the Roma Terne is one such bastion of Islington society, wholly out of touch with how people in places such as Suffolk think or feel. And I think it is insulting to such people in that they are painted in such a disparaging way. (The one local painted in a nice way, Eric the eel farmer, is of course left wing himself, I would imagine rather improbably considering he is a rural farmer, but there you go.)
Ria herself is not painted without her flaws, and she particularly gets on the nerves of the swimmer's mother. But these faults are merely faults of character rather than view, she is rather shy or she is depressed for example. These flaws do not outweigh the overriding narrative that her views are correct. We are led to believe that her leading and biased views, which it must be said go unchallenged by anyone but her neo-Nazi brother, are the right and correct ones and the only views that could be said for any decent person. Such views are continued by her daughter after her death. And they are that Britain is full of racist people. Britain is populated by rude and stupid Soviet style bureaucracies that are there merely to frustrate and destroy people's hopes and futures. The police are racists and violent etc.
1. On a train, an old man is asked to produce his senior citizen card with his ticket. He fails to do so and is therefore given a fine. All the other characters confirm that we are living in a 'Kafkaesque' country. There is no challenge whatsoever to this notion that because the ticket inspector is just doing his job, he is some sort of functionary in a Soviet system. There is no counter argument made that the retired gentleman should take some responsibility for the fact that he did not bring his senior citizen card when it was the condition of his travel. There was no point therefore made that it might be his fault.
2. Of course bureaucrats can be difficult, they can be rude and insensitive, such is human nature. I have no problems with that being portrayed. And yes, that Ria was delayed at the immigration, I can understand her frustration. But again we are straight away given this sledge hammer opinion, this black and white portrayal as fact. So because she is a bureaucrat (and therefore part of the racist system), the woman is of course ugly and horrible. And then because she says that Ria doesn't have with her the necessary documents, she is unable to proceed. Now this is understandably frustrating given that the website was down, the phones were engaged when she tried to get the information of what she should bring prior to coming to London. But ultimately she should have found out what was needed. That ultimately was her responsibility. It's hard to believe that the website would be down for more than a few hours, what with it being a government department. But beyond that, there would be countless websites that would give you the information. There would be charities and refugee/immigration consultants who would be able to provide all the information that she would need. So why did she not contact them and make sure she was prepared for this vital time spent at the immigration centre? Ria is an intellectual Cambridge graduate. Are we supposed to believe that all of this is beyond her? All we are fed is the line that we are being oppressed by the nasty system, and that this poor woman is helpless in its wake.
3. On the train, the academic sees a black man being escorted off the train by some policeman. Naturally she wonders what will happen to him. Why? I presume because as he is black and this is Britain, so obviously the man will be beaten up back at the station.
Beyond these examples, the whole premise of the story is that the system is against refugees. Perhaps it is, but it isn't challenged for what it is, and that's the problem. So we have this Tamil Sri Lankan man who has been portrayed as if he is the only refugee in the country. Actually it would seem that he has beamed down from Mars as for the reactions to him are taken. Has the author never been to Tooting in London? There are thousands of Tamils there. So why doesn't the academic just sensibly contact someone from such a place, from a Tamil contact centre, a refugee support centre, and let them help. But no, it would seem this is the Edwardian period whereby someone from Sri Lanka would be treated with such incredulity and awe, and that anyone and everyone who isn't a left-wing intellectual is a violent moronic racist.
I also think it's a problem that the refugee is a perfect man. Clever, sensitive, a great pianist. I'm not sure what it is the author is trying to say here. Yes of course it is possible that a refugee can be such a person, but by characterising him in such a way, it also implies that this is what refugees are, and of course not all are. Is she also trying to imply that he is worth rescuing because he is all of these things? And what if he wasn't? Wouldn't that have been a much better more nuanced book? How about the academic takes pity on him and wants to help, even though he's not that attractive, he doesn't play Chopin blindfolded and isn't in Mensa. How about a book that is more nuanced overall. That sometimes people who are Conservative minded (as in vote for the party), or who even vote UKIP, can be sensitive and nice decent people that might have some pearls of wisdom underneath what can seem cold and frosty exteriors. How about this refugee being yes, someone worth fighting for, someone to support as a fellow human being, but as someone with real flaws, who isn't perfect, and who is one of many as opposed to being put on a pedestal as being the perfect man.
Of course it is right and proper that racists should be challenged. Of course it is right and proper that any humane country should look after those in genuine need of protection. But that isn't the same as arguing that anyone who has concerns with cheap labour bringing down wages or with young men roaming around and breaking into their property, is a racist. And that's the problem right throughout the book.