Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Book Review: NO PLACE LIKE HOME by Caroline Overington

No Place Like Home

Title: No Place Like Home
Author: Caroline Overington
Publisher: Random House Australia
Read: August 29 - 30, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):
From bestselling author and award-winning journalist Caroline Overington comes another thought-provoking and heart-rending story, that reaches from the heart of Bondi to a small village in Tanzania.Shortly after 9.30 in the morning, a young man walks into Surf City, Bondi’s newest shopping complex. He’s wearing a dark grey hoodie – and a bomb around his neck.Just a few minutes later he is locked in a shop on the upper floor. And trapped with him are four innocent bystanders. For police chaplain Paul Doherty, called to the scene by Senior Sergeant Boehm, it’s a story that will end as tragically as it began. For this is clearly no ordinary siege. The boy, known as Ali Khan, seems as frightened as his hostages and has yet to utter a single word.The seconds tick by for the five in the shop: Mitchell, the talented schoolboy; Mouse, the shop assistant; Kimmi, the nail-bar technician; and Roger Callaghan, the real estate agent whose reason for being in Bondi that day is far from innocent. And of course there’s Ali Khan. Is he the embodiment of evil, as the villagers in his Tanzanian birthplace believe? Or just an innocent boy, betrayed at every turn, who just wants a place to call home?

My thoughts:

When police chaplain Paul Doherty is called to the scene of a “siege” at Bondi Beach’s most prestigious shopping mall, he is expecting the worst. A young man has apparently entered the building earlier that morning with an explosive device strapped around his body, and is now holed up with four hostages in a lingerie shop on the second floor, whilst police are frantically evacuating the building and trying to establish the perpetrator’s identity and motives. As the story unfolds, things are not as straightforward as they initially seemed – who really is the mysterious Ali Khan, and what does he want? Why does he look as frightened as his “hostages”, and resist all efforts by police to make contact?

As the rest of the novel unfolds through Paul’s interviews with each of the hostages after the incident, the true story behind the siege is slowly uncovered – a story of such unspeakable suffering and despair that it will challenge even Paul’s strongest beliefs.

After having read a spate of highly praised but ultimately disappointing novels recently, No Place Like Home was like a breath of fresh air - it did not take long to draw me into the storyline and keep me turning the pages! Overington’s journalist background becomes obvious in her character development and her intimate knowledge of a hot topic which continues to steal the headlines in Australian news today – the issue of “boat people”, illegal immigrants and refugees alike, and their fates in detention centres and being subject to different and often highly contested political strategies.

I thought that Overington’s choice of protagonist was extremely clever. Making Paul a chaplain, and a man whose fate compels him to regard each person without prejudice and malice, allowed the author to explore this highly controversial topic from various viewpoints. Whilst Overington’s empathy for asylum seekers is evident, she is not afraid to uncover several different aspects of the issue, highlighting the inherent problems of various “solutions”, which ultimately lead to Ali Khan’s tragic fate. I loved the way each character’s background story forms a thread in the novel, converging in the “coincidence” of each of the innocent bystanders being present in the lingerie shop at the same time. As their motives and actions are slowly unveiled, the reader is challenged to ponder where the real evil lies, and whose actions are responsible for the final tragic outcome. Slowly, page by page, the focus shifts from the initially perceived evil to a completely unexpected villain.

Overington’s latest novel offers one of the more original plots I have read in a while. Her writing is casual and refreshing, almost like a laid-back yarn around the campfire, its ease belying the controversial topics it exposes so effortlessly.  Once I picked up the book, I did not want to put it down. And whilst the overall feeling it leaves behind is one of sadness, its topic has stayed with me and comes to mind whenever the issue of boat people is being raised – at this time, so close to the election, these occasions are too numerous to count. This reason alone compels me to recommend Overington’s novel to everyone who has set ideas and opinions about the topic – if only to give food for thought and invite a fresh perspective in the face of a fierce media campaign.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed Overington’s latest novel and will make sure to look up some of her previous work.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.

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