Amnesty stars an undocumented immigrant in Sydney, Australia, who is working as a housekeeper and learns that one of his clients has been murdered–and he’s pretty sure he knows who did it. Should he report what he knows and risk deportation, or just keep mum? The story follows him over the course of a long day during which he cleans a few apartments, agonizes over his choice, and recalls his struggles as an undocumented resident.
An interesting dilemma, an unusual setting, but I felt that the story went on too long without enough details to sustain it.
The central character In the Garden of the Fugitives is a man who uses his fortune to buy women, under the guise of scholarships and fellowships to pursue their creative endeavors. Through correspondence, years later, with one of his almost-caught victim and beneficiary we hear about his story, his wife’s, and that of the beneficiary. There are many interesting tidbits in the book, including about archeological practices in Pompeii and white guilt in South Africa, but I found the story plodding and curiously cliche-bound, even if, or perhaps because of its globe-trotting, travelogue feel.
Eli, the hero of Boy Swallows Universe, has a drug-dealer stepfather (who will be killed in drug wars), a depressed mother (who will end up in prison), an alcoholic father (who cannot hold a job), and a mute brother (with other issues). But he has a plan: to corner the heroin market in Brisbane. It will take him to a career in journalism, a terrifying meeting with a drug kingpin, and back to a family drama he tried to forget. I just loved this story of a boy with big ideas in a world that thinks that children can’t do much.
The Lost Man is a family saga located in the middle of Australia, on cattle ranches where temperatures soar above 110 degrees and each drive requires lugging water and other survival gear, just in case. The death of one of three brothers eventually resolves into a tale of family violence, with the landscape a haunting character. (Jane Harper also wrote The Dry, a mystery located in a small town and with many more actors, and just as remarkable.)
Jean Harley was Here but she was killed in a silly car accident, and her husband, young son, and friends are stricken. Turns out that Jean was just perfect in every way. And perfect people are pretty boring.
The best part of the book focuses on the musings of four-year old boy, who is puzzled about his other’s disappearance in a charming, rather than heart-breaking way.
In Scrublands, a washed-out journalist arrives in a small, drought-stricken Australian town to write that’s supposed to be a simple account of how the town is coping, one year after the unlikely mass murder and suicide of the priest. Martin may be burned out, but he’s no investigative slouch and in short order he finds out that the accepted reason for the killing spree, that the priest was about to be exposed as a pedophile, is bunk, and the more he digs, the more he finds. Soon, more glamorous journalists arrive and he’s pushed aside, but the plot continues to thicken. The author is kind enough to summarize the findings at several points so the reader is not completely lost! Nice and complex, with interesting characters, on both sides of the law– and the first fifty pages give the best description of how it feels to exist in a hot and dry place.
I’m leery of titles that include the word “extraordinary”, but in the case of The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster , it is richly deserved. The woman at the center of the book has had a very unusual personal life, from abused child to drag queen to sex worker to matron and now founder and owner of a successful business. And her business is cleaning up after hoarders, homicides, and suicides, so she serves as a one-person resource for cleaning up unfathomable messes while soothing the nerves of her clients.
What I thought most remarkable about the book is how the author portrays a woman who has made many mistakes and also given generously to strangers in trouble, showing a frank and balanced story without ever making her demon or saint. It’s a remarkable story.
I loved A Long Way From Home, which takes us, very literally, around Australia in a madcap road race on dubious roads and in standard cars. We all root for a couple who wants the recognition to start a dealership, assisted by a fired schoolteacher who will discover his roots, very unexpectedly, during the trip. It’s the 1950s and the brutal treatment of Aborigines is just coming to be known, if still tolerated, and the second part of the story dwells heavily on that topic.
Written in alternate chapters penned by the wife, a fast and fearless driver battling the usual sexist strictures of the time and the navigator, the schoolteacher, the book is full of well-observed details of daily life even as the competitors race around Australia (and you will be sorely tempted to follow along on your favorite maps app). I could have done without some of the more elegiac chapters at the end of the book but I still warmly recommend it.
Want a little melancholy with your summer? Try The Other Side of the World, in which an overwhelmed mother follows her husband from England to Perth, Australia — where she finds that she is just as overwhelmed and frustrated by not being able to find time for her art. Her husband, meanwhile, finds that racism (he is part Indian) may be fiercer than back home. The story perfectly the feeling of utter exhaustion of raising small children along with the isolation of emigration, and is full of well-observed details about little kids.
In The Dry, an Australian federal agent is called back to his rural hometown to investigate a murder-suicide apparently committed by his childhood best friend. It turns out that his father and he were very literally run out of town years ago following another death and he is not welcome back. We follow his difficult investigation amongst hostile residents and thick secrets, while the earlier death is also revisited by him and the long-term residents, which means everyone except a handful of newcomers. It’s wonderfully grim and the long-term drought that is ruining the farmers adds to the gloom.