Friday, July 18, 2014

Drive-By Saviours by Chris Benjamin

Like many of the novels set in Toronto that I've read for this blog, this is an immigrant's tale; it is also what some would call a "ripping good yarn". I think a lot of novels, particularly first novels, try so hard to be serious and impactful and struggle with grand ideas, that they lose the ability to be just a straight up good story. This book is a good story.

There are two protagonists in the book, whose stories we follow in alternating chapters. The first is Bumi, an Indonesian man from a small island called Rilaka, who is taken away to the mainland for school and must learn to suppress his intellectual curiousity in order to escape notice, and begins to develop a severe case of OCD. When his irrational guilt over a crime he didn't commit collides with his neighbours' suspicion of his strange obsessive habits, he has to escape to Canada to save his own life.

It is in Toronto that Bumi meets Mark, the second protagonist. Mark's chapters are told from a first person perspective, which helps lend a little sympathy; Mark is kind of a dick and he needs all the help he can get. He is a social worker, bored with the job and with his relationship and longing for his old ideals and desire to save the world.

When Mark and Bumi meet, a considerable way through the novel, Bumi starts to see a source of warmth in a culture that has been very cold to him; Mark sees a purpose, someone he can 'save'. Both men's expectations and how they diverge from the reality of what happens is what is compelling about the story; there are no easy answers here, no pat morality tale about globalization or a yes/no answer on being a white saviour.

The book delves into a Toronto hidden from many; the world of the undocumented immigrant. Bumi works 10-14 hour shifts at an Indonesian restaurant every day for a decade to pay off his debt to the human traffickers who brought him to Canada. Every cent goes to paying off his debt, and more is deducted for small crimes such as using too much water in his obsessive hand washing rituals. Bumi's struggle is portrayed in a straightforward way that contrasts well with Mark's privileged ennui. There is no maudlin sentimentality or white guilt implicit in the writing; it is what it is.

I thought this was a fantastically well written novel; I had a hard time believing it was the author's first, and I would definitely read his work again. The story gave me a lot to think about, and there were nice touches of sweetness among the horror; I didn't come out of it wanting to die, even though as a whole the story is pretty depressing. I would have liked to see more of Toronto, but I did enjoy the parts set in Indonesia and I thought there were some interesting insights into the culture during Suharto's reign.

I recommend this book. Four CN Towers out of five.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book when it first came out and this review is spot on. The writing is brilliant and the book deserves much more attention. I'd love to see the movie.