Amnesty by Aravind Adiga
Published by Scribner
Publication date: February 18, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Cultural, Fiction, Literary, Social Issues
Last week I reviewed a light, bright novel set in 1950s Sydney, Australia. Today I’m back with another novel set in Sydney, but in recent times and with a much darker tone. Amnesty by Aravind Adiga is about Danny, an illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka. His visa expired three years ago when he dropped out from a for-profit college. He’s been living in the shadows as a cash-only cleaning person until today when he learns that one of his former clients has been murdered. There are details in her death that make the murderer someone Danny knows. The novel spans just one day, but it is a day when Danny’s future hangs in the balance.
The plot to Amnesty may be straightforward, but nothing else about Danny’s life is easy. He decided to leave Sri Lanka after being mistakenly detained as a terrorist at the airport. He’d been working in a Dubai hotel for two years for the promise of a large bonus, which turned out to be a lie. Going to school and ultimately working in Australia felt like the answer, but the school was also built on false promises—extorting money for little or no education. Now he finds himself in an untenable position—the murdered woman was kind to him, but every step he’s taken in the last three years has been in the shadows. Coming out in the light means almost certain prosecution and deportation.
Amnesty’s timeline is compressed because Danny inadvertently contacts the killer and learns the man will be leaving the country soon (not a spoiler). This also heightens the novel’s tension as he fears the man will know he knows and will turn him in. As an illegal he is unlikely to be believed and will be deported, as Australia is vehemently anti-immigration. Every day he strives to fit in and go unnoticed, meaning he is preyed upon by many of the people he encounters. He lives in a storeroom above a grocery store where he works for free AND has to pay a percentage of his cleaning wages to the owner so he won’t report him.
Danny’s fears beat against his innate desire to do the right thing. As he grapples with whether to call the police his mind races through scenarios that are exhausting in their detail—the call being traced to him, neighbors mentioning seeing him in the woman’s apartment, his fingerprints in the apartment, anything tying him to the crime scene. They also illustrate a viewpoint wholly foreign to most of us. That of being unwelcome, even despised, in a country where we are part of the economy’s fabric.
There are many issues to parse in Amnesty, but Adiga is not heavy-handed with the story. Danny isn’t blameless in his choices; he makes mistakes and poor decisions. But his innate enthusiasm and belief in being rewarded for hard work and doing the right thing is the novel’s driving force. It brings to the forefront a host of difficult questions about morals versus self-preservation and the responsibilities of people without rights. There is no easy answer except that Amnesty is a thought-provoking twist on the usual mystery thriller.
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