This is the third of Caroline Overington’s five published novels that I’ve read and though they are all standalone stories they share some characteristics. The most obvious of these is that they explore some aspect of officialdom that appears to have gone horribly awry and the impact of that breakdown on the people who, often through no fault of their own, become caught up in a bureaucratic and ultimately personal morass. In NO PLACE LIKE HOME the issue under scrutiny is the country’s treatment of…who? Ostensibly it’s asylum seekers but really it’s people who don’t fit neatly in categories that look like “normal”. For although the young man who walks into a Bondi shopping centre with a bomb strapped to his chest at the centre of this tale is a troubled refugee, he could just as easily have been someone with serious mental health issues or an ex-prisoner. Indeed there are plenty of voiceless people who slip through the chasm-sized cracks our modern societies seem replete with.
The novel is told from the first-person perspective of Paul Doherty who at the time of the events was a police chaplain. Called to the scene early on he observes the saga that unfolds after the young man is locked in one of the mall’s stores with several other people and also acts as a victim counsellor after the siege is over. This neatly provides him (and, in turn, the reader) with access to everything we need to learn the back stories of the perpetrator and his victims.
I thought the earlier two books of Overington’s that I’ve read did their jobs well. MATILDA IS MISSING and SISTERS OF MERCY use a combination of decently fleshed-out characters and compelling storylines to explore the issues Overington was trying to highlight. They are not brimming with answers (easy or otherwise) but they did both prompt me to think about my own approach to their individual scenarios. By contrast in NO PLACE LIKE HOME I thought both of these elements, but particularly the character development, were underdone, leaving me with a feeling of being heavily manipulated and rather more like I’d attended a not terribly inspiring lecture than read an engaging work of fiction.
Leaving Father Paul aside for the moment (though we will return to him) the characters were, to me, entirely one-dimensional and stereotypical. Our perpetrator is literally and figuratively voiceless making it impossible for anyone, even intrepid Father Paul, to do anything but guess at his thoughts and motivations and giving him no real substance or presence (yes, yes I do suppose that is the point). For hostages there is the plucky, responsible, brilliant working class boy who has won a scholarship to the kind of private school his single mother (who is, naturally, a cleaner) could never have afforded. And the impossibly quiet Vietnamese woman who works at a nail salon and whose extended family run a restaurant. And the repugnantly self-absorbed and materialistic real estate agent with the vapid, spendthrift wife and coke-sniffing, stripper girlfriend. Bit players include the Howard-hating leftie whose espoused beliefs prove superficial when tested and the well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual, over-privileged rich woman whose intervention on behalf of the perpetrator falls far short of what is really needed. Even Father Paul, in some ways the most well-developed character of the bunch, comes from an unusually (but stereotypically) large Catholic family of 9 (or 8, I may have misinterpreted a line).
My problem with such characters is twofold. Firstly it made it fairly easy for me to predict what would happen in the story. I don’t mean to suggest any special insight on my part but frankly I didn’t see how it could unfold any other way given how each of those archetypes would traditionally behave. But the biggest problem I have with the using of such characters is that it significantly reduced the power of the book’s exploration of important ideas. My gut reaction goes something like “since I know for a fact that most people are not a walking stereotype then events like this could never actually happen“. But, of course, that isn’t true. I mean it is true that most people are not a walking stereotype but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a different mix of people could have achieved a better result. It would have been far more thought-provoking to have had this sort of story play out with a more realistic, less stereotype-dripping cast of characters. As it stands I think readers get off far too lightly in being able to tell themselves that what has unfolded would never happen if they themselves were one of the players (because few would identify themselves with any of the major players in this novel). For me the real power of Overington’s other novels was that people would see themselves or their loved ones as the participants in the bitter child custody battle at the heart of MATILDA IS MISSING for example and be prompted to genuinely re-think their own approach to such a scenario. Here we can all happily walk away tut-tutting but knowing this doesn’t apply to us.
It might be a by-product of this shallow characterisation or perhaps it evolved entirely in its own right but the story here wasn’t up to par either. It is compelling enough but there are long passages that read as if they belong in a slightly dull but instructive magazine article rather than a work of fiction. The depiction of life inside the Australian detention centres through which all non-queue waiting asylum seekers must pass is one such passage. Top and tailed by a too-conventient introduction from Father Paul it reads like news. I don’t mean to suggest the content of the description isn’t disturbing but I don’t think this kind of near-reportage does the job of prompting people who don’t already know this information to re-think their own beliefs and ideas. Thought-provoking fiction has the opportunity to engage a reader in a way journalism and other non-fiction cannot but I did not get that sense of engagement here.
And finally we return to Father Paul. I’m prepared to admit that my reaction to this aspect of the book might say more about me than it does about the book itself. But I’m really not convinced that it is only because I was raised in a traditional Catholic household and have retained close ties to many Catholics (including a priest or two) even though my own practice of the faith has lapsed that I found Father Paul’s narration jarring. If he were only sharing his observations (in the way that the lone, male observer/narrators of Overington’s other novels did) I would not have taken issue but the fact he is revealing the thoughts, fears and secrets that people shared with him in his role as chaplain/counsellor disturbs me. Again it’s not terribly realistic (I don’t care if he is a former priest by the end of it) but it also feels like a cheat. Like it would have taken more effort to actually get to know the characters so instead there is a convenient repository for everyone’s inner truth. In summary form. And who cares that no priest I have ever known would betray people in such a way?
I don’t know whether to recommend NO PLACE LIKE HOME or not because although it isn’t for me it’s clear from other reviews that I’m pretty much a lone wolf on this one and there’s every chance I might have missed the point entirely (Australian Women Writers Challenge founder Elizabeth Lheude proposes the book is actually satire). All I can say is that based on my experiences with the author’s other books and the overwhelmingly positive reviews of this one, I expected a potentially confronting but ultimately rewarding reading experience about a topic that desperately needs to be addressed in a meaningful way; far from the spotlight of sound-bite media and vote-needy politicians. And I was disappointed.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
This is the second novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself
Publisher Bantam 
Length 339 pages
Book Series standalone
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Nice review; thanks.
Bernadette – This honestly doesn’t sound like one for me either. I like it best when characters are more well-rounded than that, and I think you make a well-taken point that characters who aren’t believable make for a very implausible story. Neither does a writing style that doesn’t really bring things home to the reader. Hmmm..I think I”ll wait on this one.
Interesting, Bernadette. I like the idea of a character who is a Catholic priest (I also know a few myself 😉 ) but it doesn’t sound like the book has been well executed. I’ll look out for it anyway.
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Oh that does sound disappointing. Sometimes it’s worse when a story with potential is ruined by lack of character, than it was just rubbish in the first place. It’s interesting – and well worth any aspiring writers noting – that it’s easier to forgive clunky or predictable plotting when there are vivid characters to be in love with, but even a story that sounds intriguing is no good with one dimensional characters.
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