Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Book review: Offshore, Joshua Mostafa (2019)

The publisher is promoting this as a novella but it seems to me to be too long to warrant that label so I’m going to call it a novel. The premise is simple: Australian institutions have broken down in the face of an economic crisis along with the consequences of climate change. Authority has disappeared and life is dangerous in Sydney.

Much of the book takes place in the western suburbs of the city, with excursions to the Blue Mountains, and on an unnamed island in the Pacific. Early on in the story, the narrator (who is not named), a professor in the humanities, meets up with a woman named Sarah and a man named Bart, the latter being a former mature-age student from one of the protagonist’s classes. The narrator is immediately flagged as unreliable when he pours scorn on Bart in his manuscript – he secures a notepad and pen at some point in his journey on the boat that will take him to the island – and subsequent events show him to be very imperfect.

Mostafa cleverly turns the tables on Australia by making it necessary for its own citizens to flee overseas. In real life Australia operates a camp on the island of Nauru where refugees who have tried to reach it by boat are kept in a camp. There are more refugees in Papua New Guinea who want to come to the country but who are not allowed due to government policy. I have written at length about Australia’s refugee policies elsewhere.

In the novel, the way that the country adapts to changed circumstances brings visibly to mind the types of problems that people who seek refuge in Australia face in their countries of origin. The violence, the corruption, the human rights abuses, the coercion and injustice. It is all here in a form that makes it relevant to every Australian, and it’s done in an engaging and vibrant way. In a way that brings to life the awfulness of despotism and its logical correlate: anarchy.

About a year ago I read another book that places asylum seekers at the centre of its drama. This was ‘On the Java Ridge’ by Jock Serong. Mostafa’s novel is literary fiction and I suspect will do better than Serong’s attempt, which didn’t make much of a splash, but it was a thriller. I didn’t particularly like it because of the way that, in it, life appeared to be of little value. In Mostafa’s book there is just as much to be horrified by but it feels better-handled, and the violence is portrayed with more compassion for the characters involved.

For a writer of speculative and engaged fiction there is a danger of producing something where the themes are overdetermined and narrow, a work that is too politicised and therefore fails to offer a credible storyline with believable characters. I find such shortcomings too often. But there is in Mostafa’s novel a broad awareness of where the community sits with regard not only to geopolitics. It might be surprised to see its own nature revealed but what is created here has the ring of truth.

This novel is realist in design (with an interesting metatextual divertissement thrown in just to demonstrate the author’s philosophical chops) and has a progressive political bias. The former competently carries the burden placed on it by the latter. There is no shoehorning of ideas into unsuitable containers. Things seem, in this work, to gel nicely. I’m convinced that Robert Hughes would have been proud of it, if he had lived a little longer.

To put Mostafa’s story in context the following is a graphic showing rainfall in the Victorian town of Ballarat, since the end of the 19th century when such records began to be gathered.

To end this review, a short note on Double Bay. I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney and even in the 1970s Double Bay was anything but monocultural. It’s more culturally diverse now than it was then. 

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