Sunday, 11 September 2011

harbor [lorraine adams]

The physical harbor referred to in the title is near Boston. It's where the Algerians, many of whom come from the same small seaside town, Arzew, arrive after they jump off the tankers they have stowed away on into the icy Atlantic and swim the last leg of their journey to the relative safety of the USA. The Algerians are fleeing from the brutal and under-reported conflict that has ravaged their country. The book follows the journey of Aziz, a former soldier, from the tanker up to his arrest on charges of terrorism.

The last word signals the secondary, ghost narrative of the book. Who are the bogeyman figures who populate our media and our consciousness? What does the shape of the "evil which threatens our civilisation" as Blair, Bush and Amis might say, take? In Harbor, Adams sets out to demystify what will come to be known as a terrorist cell.

The book is apparently based on testimonies that Adams curated during her time working as an investigative journalist. Her style is clipped, with fast edits between short chapters. The influence of Elroy appears to be significant, as she hops, skips and jumps through the years of the Algerians' illegal stay, constantly moving the narrative along. The effect is sometimes opaque: the reader can feel as lost as the novel's characters as they head into a new continent without much of a clue. Logical, "transparent" readings of their lives, the book seems to be suggesting, are impossible to construct. They inhabit an almost invisible hinterland of petty crime, credit card theft, black labour, nightclubs, religion, alcohol and ultimately, at the edge of the spectrum, fundamentalism.  Bit-by-bit, the narrative accrues, and our understanding of Aziz grows, shaped in large part by the terrifying events he experienced in Algeria and from which he will always be fleeing.

There's an acerbic, journalistic flintiness to Adams' prose. Like Elroy, she doesn't want her style or even our natural tendency to sympathise for a hero, to get in the way of the account she's giving. This makes for a compelling, ultimately tragic novel. What is revealed is that it is not so much the perceived threat that is a danger to our society, but our ignorance with regard to what this perceived threat really consists of.

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