Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin

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Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A journalist in Africa, late 1990s, finds the problems inherent in reporting the unearthly horrors of ethnic warfare, and the benefits of grounding relationships with his damaged colleagues. It's a meaty premise, but closer perhaps to bushmeat than prime rump.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-1844881857

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Meet Africa, a land of contrasts, where the delights of the Sun City resort seldom meet the killing fields. A world so big it's best travelled by knock-down ex-Soviet airplanes. A place where some hold great import to the highly endangered mountain gorillas' survival, and many more hold greater import to the highly endangered refugees who need the gorillas' forest home to cook their rationed handouts with. A continent divided by empires and commonwealths from elsewhere into countries with no regard to ethnic or tribal boundaries.

Is it our fault, then, or theirs, that the battles that result are so complicated, so hard to understand, and so evidently easy to ignore? Or is it that of the journalists in between us here and them there?

Owen is one of those journalists, dropping into being a foreign correspondent casually and easily (much like the way he drops into the bed of a couple of women in these pages). Forming a coterie of colleagues and companions, mostly fresh from the bewildering Bosnia battleground, he is tasked with travelling Africa in the late 1990s – and producing the reportage that still hits home to us now today – places and terms such as Rwanda, Zaire, cholera…

The initial chapters of this book will alienate more than a few. We drift from Owen circa 2008, wounded, back in Dublin and back behind a desk again, to action here and there and back again, and slowly build up our pictures of the other characters, much as a pressman must drift from contact to contact to build up his background, but all with a quite unhealthy disregard of a followable timeline.

We do eventually build up the bigger picture – the main relationships, the main focus of the action and locale, but it takes some time. And here, in among a noticeable style (the first reported dialogue is seven pages in, and the many descriptive scenes perfectly fit with a first person narrative by a journalist), we find the horrors and the comedy of life in the field.

I didn't really need this edition of this debut novel to tell me the writer was an ex-Africa correspondent, for the book evidently is written from first-hand experience. I dare say there will be at least one instance of the author saying in interview that the truth was far too bizarre, cruel or black to be featured here, and that what is here is somewhat diluted. I would counter that we didn't need that dilution, for it seemed to spread to all elements herein – the pairings in the press pack, the maddened reporter going off his rocker, the scenes of devastation with no 'in' for the writers to make much value of.

It could read a lot more like an 'issue' book than it does, as the characters gather round the dining table of a night with their disinfecting tot of whisky, having spent the day in either the right or the wrong place, depending on how you see things, and having gone to the hotel rooftop with their satellite phones to feed back. There's much more import given to recreating the life of the characters than in creating a moral for them or us, but at times the unearthly inhumanity of it all does come across forcefully enough.

Elsewhere, however, we drift through the narrative with no clear sense of the author's will, other than expunging his experiences with the help of fiction. It doesn't have any pointers to what it's building towards in its last hour, which many may enjoy, but for me it didn't fit with the publisher's use of the hallowed name Graham Greene in their blurb. This does live as a document from the field (Owen says he regrets making a private press journal in order to make a memoir from) with all the lack of conclusions such might carry, and that to many will be part of the appeal.

For me, however, there was a lack of oomph, clarity and purpose about the book as a whole. It didn't go as far as being disagreeable at all, but it never seemed strong enough to compete in a world with Giles Foden already writing about Africa so well. I wanted for more of a drive that would take me and Owen further quicker.

We are thankful to Penguin for our review copy.

For a non-fiction look at the problems in Rwanda we can recommend A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak by Jean Hatzfeld and for more about being a reporter in a war zone it's difficult to beat War Stories by Jeremy Bowen. For a fictional look at some of the horrors of Africa you might appreciate Kennedy's Brain by Henning Mankell. You might also enjoy Songs of Triumphant Love by Jessica Duchen.

Booklists.jpg Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin is in the Man Booker Prize 2009.

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