Australia’s Keneally (Office of Innocence, 2003, etc., etc.) offers the most significant American novel of some time, much as Graham Greene in 1955 with The Quiet American.
The setting isn’t Saigon but the capital city of a Middle Eastern state tyrannized by “Great Uncle” and his secret police, the “Overguard.” Any doubts that Iraq is meant dissipate quickly as we learn that poison gas was used in a recent war (against the “Others”), that Great Uncle’s nation is under Western economic sanctions that cripple the poor and hurt all—or that one of Great Uncle’s sons shot dead two leaders of the national soccer team after they’d lost the World Cup. Desolate and corrupt, both city and nation are bled dry, oppressed by tyranny from within and sanctions from without—and Keneally brings it all to life with a gritty, uncompromising vividness equal to Greene’s Saigon or Winston Smith’s London. The central figure is Alan Sheriff, author of a highly praised book of stories drawn from his experience as a young soldier in the war against the Others. Indeed, life holds promise for Alan, whose first novel is almost finished, with already a lot of money in the bank from it. But calamity visits when an aneurism kills Sarah, Alan’s beloved and nationally famous actress-wife. In his grief, he deep-sixes his computer, then buries with Sarah the only remaining copy of his novel (it was for her, after all). Soon afterward, a summons: Alan is arrested, blindfolded, and taken to an audience with Great Uncle himself, who gives Alan an offer he can’t refuse: one month to write an emotion-arousing novel to be published in the West under Great Uncle’s name to stir up world opposition to the sanctions, all this before the coming G-7 meetings in Montreal. And so Alan wrestles with time, conscience, grief, desire, despair, and the blank page in ways no reader—certainly no American reader—will easily forget.
Brilliant, riveting, conscience-driven political novel: rank it with the greats.