Not Untrue & Not Unkind, by Ed O’Loughlin

o'loughlinI approached this book with some degree of personal interest. In my former working life, one of my tasks was to supervise what was then Canada’s most extensive news agency which had a number of foreign bureaus, including Africa. I have had some experience with African correspondents and the challenges that they faced — O’Loughlin’s book, according to the previews, was “a gripping story of friendship, rivalry and guilt among a group of journalists and photographers covering Africa’s wars.” That seemed to offer promise.

In the spirit of blogging transperancy and intellectual honesty, I finished reading this book about four weeks ago — I found it so bad then, that I decided not to review it. Now that this debut novel has made the Booker longlist, I am reversing that decision, but my opinion has not changed. Obviously, others have a different view. So my negative opinion now seems worthy of being expressed — besides, if I am going to review all 13 longlisted books there must be a couple that I don’t like.

The narrator of Not Untrue & Not Unkind is Owen Simmons. We meet him as he begins his work as foreign editor of a Dublin newspaper, inheriting the post from an apparent suicide who has left behind a blood-spattered file folder — it contains pictures and clippings that remind Owen of his own experiences as a roving correspondent in Africa during the 1990s. It was a troubling time in that continent, with the genocide in Rwanda, assorted outbreaks in Nigeria and disruptions in the Congo. Even without my personal interest in those events, that offers material for an interesting work.

O’Loughlin’s opening paragraph does suggest an additional, important story line, the frustration of the war correspondent now chained to a desk:

Ten years ago I became a hero, and when I came home my old paper took me on again. They thought I’d be an ornament. Ten years now working four shifts a week, six hours a shift and six weeks off each year. If you can call that working. At any rate, I get paid.

There is promise in both that premise and that start: A correspondent who covered some of the most disastrous events of the time, called home to Ireland to edit copy and achingly remembering what had been. I know enough from real life to know that that is not an unheard of phenomenon.

Alas, the rest of the book is a disaster.

There is a cadre of journalists who wander the world and drop in on catastrophes — a mix of freelancers (usually the first to get there), who then get overtaken by the fully-employed, foreign-based reporters, who in their turn get replaced by the even-more-out-of-touch foreign experts from head office. The stories they write don’t change but as the correspondents change the stories move from page 24 to page 3 or 4 to Page One. All of these journalists face challenges (and obviously the first, lowest-paid know more about the situation on the ground than the latest, most-highly-paid arrivals) but whatever those challenges might be the story on the ground is quite a bit more important than the story of those who are trying to tell it.

The problem with O’Loughlin’s book is that it focuses on a handful of reporters who wander around covering African disasters and their problems. But if there is a final message to the reader in this book, it is that the story is quite a bit more important than the people who are telling it. Unfortunately, the book is about the storytellers, not the story.

The narrative moves from country to country, crisis to crisis, city to city. Transitions tend to occur like this:

We were both broke, as usual, but Beatrice had a plan., There was a conference starting in Durban in a couple of days — sustainable development, something like that — and she was sure that her French paper would want her to go. French editors love covering conferences and big set-piece stories, where facts don’t screw up your themes. If her company would pay the bill, for the trip we could both go to Durban and stay in the Edward, overlooking the sea.

Offsetting these travel arrangements, sitting around in bars (Graham Greene is an obvious reference, but a facile one) and shifting love affairs are the inevitable conflicts with the authorities (there are always at least two sets in every conflict, by definition) and equally inevitable incidents of pointless and inhumane violence, since these are war zones after all. O’Loughlin has a curious way of treating these like a version of weather reports — none of them involve characters, just events that effect the war correspondents.

I could accept the idea of putting the Africa story in the background, if any of the journalist characters in the foreground were interesting, but they are not (Evelyn Waugh did just that in Scoop, a vastly superior novel about this same set of circumstances). They move from crisis to crisis, satellite phones on hand; compete for stories; form and break small alliances; have and end romances; hate head office. Because the author needs to move them from crisis to crisis, the narrative features a lot of violence and grotesquely-damaged, dead bodies — since his story is about the people who are observing the carnage rather than what the journalists are observing, that bigger picture of the carnage always makes his narrative seem to be a caricature. And, since he never gets the opportunity to really fill out those characters, a not very good caricature.

I read this book to the end, but only because of my personal background — the deeper into the book that I got the more frustrated and annoyed I became at how shallow the portrayal, not just of the African story but of the journalists, was.

The Booker jury obviously found something in this book that totally passed me by. If you can explain what it is, please don’t hesitate to correct me in a comment. For me, Not Untrue & Not Unkind was a profoundly disappointing book.

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24 Responses to “Not Untrue & Not Unkind, by Ed O’Loughlin”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm, it doesn’t sound a success, and you do have more insight into the subject matter than most here Kevin.

    That said, your tastes and literary prize judges often don’t overlap, so while I won’t be reading this possibly I should pop out and put a fiver on it just in case…

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    A very effective shot, Max. My dislike of the book — and my record on prizes — does serve as a very effective betting tout, albeit a sort of “reverse” handicapping.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    If it’s any consolation Kevin, I trust your judgement over that of most prize judges by some way.

    The interesting thing with prizes is who gets on the list, who wins is often much less exciting.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I certainly agree with that last sentence — I like the Booker because I think both the longlist and shortlist have interesting possibilities, even if I don’t (at least in recent years) like the choice of the winner.

    I’ve also tried to interest a friend who was an African correspondent to take on this volume and hazard an opinion. Stay tuned.

  5. Trevor Says:

    Because I knew your opinion on this book, Kevin, I decided not to order it yet. While I think the topic sounds interesting, like Max I trust your judgment on the subject matter and the literary merit. I just don’t know if I want to devote the time to it. Your negative review has helped me immensely!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The only other person I know who has tried it, Trevor, is dgr who indicated she had abandoned it — although it is not really her kind of book. If I was looking to critique my own opinion, I would compare it to my response to The White Tiger which I also did not like. In both cases, I think the books are very shallow treatments of interesting circumstances, with little literary merit. I suspect readers who know less about both sets of circumstances find the books of more value than I do — I don’t think that makes them good books but, as Max has helpfully pointed out, sometimes juries and I reach different conclusions.

  7. Colette Jones Says:

    I’ve made it to page 70 and I’m reading your review now. That tells you that I don’t like the book. Otherwise I would be protecting my opinion against all others.

    My problem with it is I don’t see it as a novel, or even as fiction. It appears to be thrown together from the author’s notes from the time he reported in Africa.

    I have to wonder if Anne Enright’s quote on the front:

    … the most exciting first novel I have read in man years”

    left out the words “is not this one”.

  8. John Self Says:

    I have to wonder if Anne Enright’s quote on the front:

    … the most exciting first novel I have read in man years”

    left out the words “is not this one”.

    :lol:

    I must say that with both Kevin and Colette siding against this one, it is looking less likely that I will actually try it.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I’d say “thrown together” is an accurate description. Although even with that I would say that most of the foreign correspondents that I knew were much more interesting (and much less self-preoccupied) than the ones that O’Loughlin spent his time with. This bunch is truly vapid and uninteresting. I too wondered what Enright was thinking — I know authors get enormous pressure from their publishers to provide blurbs, but I can’t believe she actually read this one.
    John: Perhaps if gets to the short list (I’ll be headed for the nearest bridge if it does) you could take it on then. While I have always believed that one judge who “really” liked a book can get it on to a longlist, I can’t figure out how even one judge saw anything in this book.

  10. kimbofo Says:

    Hhhmmmm, interesting. I nabbed this one at Dublin Airport at the end of April, because the combination of journalists, Africa and love affairs sounded like a heady mix I’d enjoy. Sadly, the book’s lingered in my reading queue since then, but I’m hoping to bump it up near the top, for a couple of reasons: (1) its Booker long-listing and (2) to see whether I agree with your review! I’ll be sure to drop by and let you know when I eventually get around to reading it.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Your opinion will be most welcome, Kimbofo.

  12. Kerry Says:

    I was thinking of doing the Booker longlist, but the only books that seemed likely to be interesting are not out yet. Coetzee being chief among them. The other reason is that you, Kevin, are reading and reviewing them. I will be informed enough to have a rooting interest, but I can skip the duds.

    Unless Kimbofo comes back with a diametrically opposed opinion, I will feel quite safe passing this one up.

    Great review. Thanks for taking on this prize, so those of us too lazy to read them all can pick and choose among them knowledgeably.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: Of the ones that I have read, I would definitely recommend The Glass Room — and I think it would fit your tastes.

    I am only halfway through but would offer the opinion that this is a year that has two kinds of Booker longlist books (and then this dreadful one). There are the 7 out of 10s — okay books but flawed. And the ones that are 10s for some and 2s for others (e.g. The Chilldren’s Book, Wolf Hall , Brooklyn and The Little Stranger). Unless you are in to reading prize books (I am and even I didn’t decide to commit to trying the whole list until the longlist had come out and I had already read five), I think this is a good year to be selective and perhaps pay more attention when the shortlist comes out. Coetzee or Trevor could change that view (since both books come out Sept. 3) but I doubt it — they both tend to be authors that some people really like and others find not very interesting.

  14. Colette Jones Says:

    I did have a bit of a giggle at the beginning of chapter 6 when the narrator explains in great detail that he didn’t keep a diary. That’s the fiction element, then.

  15. jem Says:

    Good to read your review of this one Kevin. I always like to find someone who is trying to read through all the nominated titles. I’m picking and choosing so far this year till I see how I get on. And I have to say I avoided this in my first virtual shopping trip. I can’t say I’m any more keen on it now I’ve read your review.

    It’s interesting – I often think there are books about subject matters that don’t appeal, but which can engage me if they are well written, plotted etc. And then there are books which are about a subject matter that appeals and can hold my attention because of that hook even if they are flawed.

    But here you have a subject you are interested in which still lets you down immensely. Not a good sign!

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jem: So far I am finding it to be a very different kind of Booker year. There is an unusually large list of titles from previous winners and “names”, some of which (Atwood, Banville) are already out of the running — and those two have not even been released yet. Opinion on most of the others (Byatt, Toibin, Waters, Mantel) seems to be very polarized (love it or hate it), which is somewhat unusual for established authors. Add in three first novels and some lesser known names and it makes for a different kind on competition than in recent years.

    Like Colette, I can’t understand how this one made the longlist. Usually with a book that I find wanting, I can at least see what might make it attractive to others — I can build no case at all for this one.

    And please don’t hesitate to comment and leave a link on any longlist title that you do pick up. I’m now just about halfway through and looking forward to the rest.

  17. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    My money is on the Glass Room by Simon Mawer. I appreciate your review above – it is often useful to hear from someone with inside knowledge

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I’ve actually made a 10 pound bet (at odds of 14 to 1) on The Glass Room with the online bookmaker I occasionally use. Given my record in predicting Booker winners, this means that I have jinxed Simon Mawer. I should probably be apologizing.

  19. kimbofo Says:

    Kevin, I’ve just finished reading the book. A suspected case of swine flu has me confined to bed (and quarantined in the house), so it was the perfect opportunity to bump this one to the top of the queue. Having now re-read your review I have to say that I think you are spot on. I think the real problem with this book is that it lacks emotion. Here we have a team of journos writing about some of the most devastating and violent conflicts of recent times, putting themselves in the firing line, and O’Loughlin makes it all sound as dreary as watching grass grow. While there are passages of quiet beauty, specifically when he’s describing landscapes or weather formations, most of it just lacks ooomph. I didn’t care a toss for any of these people, and I didn’t care a toss for anything happening in Africa. Such a shame, because the book had all the right ingredients for a really powerful, hard-hitting, devastating read.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: Your sense of disappointment (and your observations) mirror mine almost exactly. And I suspect the fact that both of us are/were journalists might have led to somewhat higher expectations of potential — but I don’t think that in any way influenced how disappointing the book was. O’Loughlin did have a number of roads to pursue that could have been interestiing; the one he chose I “didn’t care a toss” for either.

    My hypothesis (and it is a bit of a wild one) about how this got on the longlist is that one of the judges really dislikes journalists who cover African and other foreign conflicts and thought the portrayal of them in this book as shallow, selfish individuals was spot on. I know that sounds like journalist paranoia on my part, but it is the only theory that I can build for why anyone would like this book — in essence, what you and I find to be a complete lack becomes a strength, if you start from that point of view. Obviously, not one I share.

  21. dovegreyreader Says:

    Dangerous to say it’s not my kind of book Kevin :-))))
    Just turning the final pages so my thoughts will be out and about sometime next week…

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Not only very dangerous, but quite inappropriate — I should know better than to start projecting opinions about other reader’s tastes. My apologies and I look forward to your thoughts.

  23. Ebony Says:

    Excellent Review. My thoughts exactly. It wasn’t so much the malaise of the characters that bothered me, it was that the characters were so uninteresting. Kimbofo’s comment ‘I didn’t care a toss for any of these people, and I didn’t care a toss for anything happening in Africa’ was spot on. I think it was also the continuous passive voice of the book that made it particularly mind-numbing for me.
    I’ve got some good ammo for my book club now. Thanks!

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ebony: This would be on the shortlist for “worst books reviewed on this blog”. Good luck at your book club.

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