Review: Amnesty by Aravind Adiga

I found this a really interesting read about what it’s like to be an undocumented immigrant in Australia. Adiga tells the story through the eyes of Danny, who has fled his native Sri Lanka after torture. He comes to Australia through a school program, applies for refugee status but is denied, and then stays on past his visa.

Danny is a housecleaner who finds out one day that one of his clients has been murdered.  Danny knows she was having an affair and it’s likely this affair has something to do with her death.  He’s also pretty sure if he goes to the police, he’ll be deported.

Most of the book takes place during a single day, but in that day you get a pretty good idea of what Danny’s life is like — the constant fear he lives with and the vulnerability of living as someone who is undocumented.  For example, he has no access to health care, no protection from authorities, and as a laborer he can easily be taken advantage of.  Survival means staying invisible and blending in.

He’s a sympathetic character, though not a saint either. His relationship with this client is pretty sketchy and he seems to go along with things he shouldn’t. He has a girlfriend he thinks about a lot, but she doesn’t know anything about his life, and this relationship never seemed real to me.  

While the story is uneven at times, I liked the way this book challenged my beliefs.  Going to the police when you know something about a crime seems like the obvious and right thing to do, so I found myself rooting for Danny to do the right thing. But what’s right when you know that doing it means being sent back to a country that will torture you, or worse?  Also, Danny’s relationship with his client, and her lover, is complicated.  Why should he sacrifice himself for someone who is (1) already dead and (2) wasn’t terribly nice or honest?

Seen through Danny’s eyes, there’s a panicky, almost feverish quality to the writing and we aren’t always sure we know what’s happening.  For me, that sense of panic added to the story, although it was also difficult to follow at times, and repetitive.  Readers looking for a typical mystery-thriller will be disappointed.  This is a book about a murder but that’s really not what this story is about.

There were times I wanted to like Danny more than I did, but I always felt sympathetic to his plight, and I felt Adiga gave us a thoughtful, layered look at race and immigration issues.

For readers who found this book interesting, I highly recommend these books about the U.S. immigration system, especially Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas.

Note: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Scribner.  This book was published on February 18, 2020.

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