James Gault reviews The Pacifist by Mehreen Ahmed
On one level, the Pacifist is a historical novel set in late 19th and early 20th century Australia. It’s rag-to-riches story of the climb from poverty and oppression to wealth and power. It illuminates aspects of troubling themes like institutional child abuse, racism, corruption, mental health, relevant then and still relevant today. All of this is in the novel, but it is not the novel.
This is above all a book about people: the story of two generations of a family and how the sins of the father are visited on the son. In the beginning we are introduced to Malcolm, a successful businessman about whom we would say, euphemistically, that he is not a nice person. But how can a person become so ‘not nice’? Is he just a rich spoiled brat, or is there more to it than that? Is there a dark family secret somewhere?
Well, of course there is. Several of them. They’re hidden in a mysterious red folder. We are taken back to revisit the life story of Malcolm’s mother Rose and his father Peter and to discover how and why the red folder came to be created. As the story unfolds, we begin at least to understand Malcolm, even if we can’t quite bring ourselves to forgive him. Peter is the victim of the hard circumstances of the times and Malcolm is in some sense a victim of Peter, and therefore a victim too of the misfortunate and injustices his parents faced. It reminds us that effects of oppression extend down the generations.
This is a really well written story, especially in the way the characters are brought to life. The one thing I didn’t like was that, while the story centred on the father Peter, the author had built a much more powerful picture of the son. I was left hungering for more about Malcolm.
That aside, the book is a fascinating read. It’s an Australian novel with what seems to me an authentic Australian feel, but the story and themes are universal.
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