Saturday, 26 March 2016

MORE GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2016

Before it Breaks, by Dave Warner

            Why is it that the main protagonists of most crime novels are divorced, burnt-out, unloved and unlovable – but unerringly fabulous at their jobs?  Their personal lives are always rubbish, but they always find out Whodunnit, and why.  ‘Before it Breaks’ is no different except for its setting, for all the action takes place in Broome, Western Australia, and as much as kiwis and Aussies like to tout their differences, there is much about everyday life that is indistinguishable between our two countries, as this good story reveals:  readers from both countries this end of the world will recognise places, characters – and speech patterns that are comfortingly familiar on either side of the Tasman:  for that reason alone this story, despite its tried and true formula, makes a very good foray into the crime genre.
            Detective Inspector Daniel Clement, once a star of the Perth Police Department, has transferred himself to Broome, a tourist town far to the north of the State.  His talents are wasted there as local crime is confined to pub brawls and petty thieving, but his ex-wife Marilyn and only child, Phoebe, are living there;  he wants to be near to his daughter, even if it means facing the Gorgon that is his mother-in-law whenever he makes contact.  He knows that if he stays in Perth his daughter will grow away from him very quickly.  Broome and its obvious disadvantages will have to be his home for the next while, whether he likes it or not.
            Until two tourists report gunshots in the vicinity of Jasper’s Creek, home of crocodiles and other nasties (none of those here in Kiwiland!).  An investigation reveals a body partly submerged in the water – untouched by the Croc, but very dead just the same from a hideous blow to the head.  The corpse is revealed to be Dieter Schaffer, a semi-reclusive ex-policeman from Germany and from his current lifestyle a dope grower, gambler and general layabout.  Initially the reason for the crime is thought to be the marijuana he supplied – a deal made with someone that went sour – until another body is discovered, this time a Maori member of a bikie gang resident in the area:  the waters are starting to get muddy, and as Clement delves deeper into the mystery he discovers (as usual) that things are NEVER as they seem.
            Enquiries with the German Police reveal that the first victim, Dieter Schaffer, was part of an undercover operation in Hamburg which resulted in the murder and dismemberment of a fine officer:  Clement knows there is a connection – but what?
            Add to that the imminent threat of a huge cyclone ready to bear down on Broome and outlying areas and Mr Warner should have created more fear and dread than a body should rightly stand – BUT!
            The action and pace are very uneven.  The plot is almost too busy and there are flashbacks that distract when they should do the opposite.  When the murderer and his motives are finally revealed, instead of thinking ‘No way – it couldn’t have been!’ this reader was thinking ‘So much for the cyclone.  It didn’t blow ME away.’  Which is a shame.  I don’t know why Mr Warner ran out of steam in the last couple of chapters, but for all that ‘Before it Breaks’ is still a True Blue read.  Too right, mate!  THREE STARS

The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota

Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, Sanjeev Sahota’s superb story of a year in the life of three of Britain’s illegal immigrants is hugely pertinent to the current plight of Eastern refugees in Europe, and deftly illustrates an underbelly of desperation and criminality of which few ordinary citizens are aware:  who would know of the sacrifices made to send the bus passenger sitting in front of them to England, in the hope that he might earn fabled amounts of money to send back home, thus keeping his family from begging on the Indian streets?
            Avtar is the eldest son in the family of a shawl seller in Mumbai.  Business is almost non-existent, and they are all dependent on his income as a bus conductor – which is terminated in terrible circumstances:  the only solution to keep his family from starving is to try to get to England, still regarded as the Land of Milk and Money, on a highly expensive student visa, made possible through sympathetic solicitors – who naturally are not at all accommodating when it comes to their fee.  An added complication is his love affair with Lakhpreet, the daughter of former neighbours who have also fallen on hard times:  their son Randeep will also be sent to England to earn fabulous money to keep his family in their accustomed prosperous style.  Randeep has entered into a marriage in name only with Narinder, a pious English-born Sikh girl who wishes to do good in her life according to her religious convictions.  They will not share an address, only coming together when visits are made by immigration inspectors.   
Avtar is reluctantly persuaded to keep an eye on the inexperienced, other-worldly Randeep, which he promises to do – but he still can’t raise enough money.
            Until he is forced to go to the criminal moneylenders, even after selling one of his kidneys and STILL falling short of the required amount:  his pain and desperation will all go away, he thinks, when he starts earning all those wonderful English pounds.  And having to look out for that baby Randeep won’t be so onerous – will it?
            True to form, England’s streets of gold are anything but;  it takes months to find construction work, where they are exploited mercilessly and eventually forced to work at several jobs so that they can send money home and still keep themselves from starving.  Their fragile dream has turned into a nightmare.  And to prove the caste system is still alive and flourishing, Tochi, a surly workmate of Avtar and Randeep is already living a nightmare:  his entire family were killed in political riots in India and he was set on fire, surviving by some miracle – so that he would never forget he is Chamaar:  Untouchable.  He too travels illegally to England, hoping that the caste system will be forgotten, only to discover that humiliation and shame will follow him wherever he goes.
            Mr Sahota’s characters draw us inexorably into their hardscrabble lives and we find that adversity does not breed companionship and loyalty as we would like to think:  desperation breeds betrayal on a large scale and revenge must be exacted. 

            This rich, beautifully written story will not leave the reader’s mind easily;  Avtar, Randeep, Tochi and Narinder are there to stay – unforgettable.  SIX STARS!!    

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