Book Review

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga

amnesty

Danny – Dhananjaya Rajaratnam – is an undocumented immigrant in Sydney, denied refugee status after he has fled from his native Sri Lanka. Working as a cleaner, living out of a grocery storeroom, for three years he’s been trying to create a new identity for himself. And now, with his beloved vegan girlfriend, Sonja, with his hidden accent and highlights in his hair, he is as close as he has ever come to living a normal Australian life.

But then one morning, Danny learns a female client of his has been murdered. When Danny recognises a jacket left at the murder scene, he believes it belongs to another of his clients – a doctor with whom he knows the woman was having an affair. Suddenly Danny is confronted with a choice: come forward with his knowledge about the crime and risk being deported, or say nothing, and let justice go undone? Over the course of a single day, evaluating the weight of his past, his dreams for the future, and the unpredictable, often absurd reality of living invisibly and undocumented, he must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights still has responsibilities.

Propulsive, insightful, and full of Aravind Adiga’s signature wit and magic, Amnesty is both a timeless moral struggle and a universal story with particular urgency today.

Over the course of the novel, the reader learns how Danny first came to Australia on a student visa, and that he stayed, illegally, after his visa expired.  He works hard as a cleaner, and helps, under some duress, at the grocery store where he has a room.  Adiga brilliantly captures the minutiae of everyday life that Danny must consider in order to not draw attention to himself, and I can’t imagine how it is to live under the constant fear that you might be recognised by the authorities, or someone that will report you to the authorities, as an illegal immigrant.  Everything he says and does, how he walks, is considered to make himself as inconspicuous as possible – even going as far as to suppress his accent. Danny’s life is one of constant paranoia, and it sounds utterly exhausting to be on one’s guard the whole time.  It’s an unusual yet interesting perspective that gives insight into the life of an immigrant.

Amnesty is, quite literally, a day in the life of an illegal immigrant.  It begins as any other day for Danny, with him travelling to the home of client number four to clean.  It is here that he learns of the death of another of his clients, Radha, or client number five as Danny dubs her.  Danny liked Radha – in a platonic sense – and is shocked to hear of her murder.  He knows that she was having an affair, and in learning some of the details of her murder, has his suspicions as to the culprit.  This leaves him with an impossible choice – should he report what he knows, and risk deportation and his own future, or stay quiet and maintain his invisibility?

If I tell the law what I know about Dr. Prakash, I tell the law what I know about myself.

It’s this question that plagues Danny throughout the day, as he battles with his conscience, and I enjoyed Danny’s internal monologue as he tries to make his decision.  His thoughts over the course of the day also reveal more of his past, both in Australia and prior to his arrival, and gives more flesh to the protagonist.  I think that what struck me about Danny is his normality.  He’s just an ordinary guy, who happens to be living illegally in the country that he’s in.  The press – in the UK at least – are often guilty of dehumanising immigrants, particularly in today’s strained political climate, emphasising benefit claimants and little else.  That’s not Danny, nor the experience of other immigrants that he knows, and this is a thought-provoking read that paints a very different picture of the immigrant experience.

Amnesty is a slow-paced novel that reflects upon culture and belonging, and it’s one that is extremely topical.  I did find the style a little hard to engage with at times, as the narrative jumps from Danny’s current thoughts and action to his past and back again with little warning, but I became used to this as the novel progressed, and I enjoyed this exploration of what it is to be an outsider and the question of whether to do the right thing, even when it is to your own detriment.

Amnesty is published by Picador on 20 February.  Many thanks to Camilla Elsworthy for the early review copy.

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