One of my favourite things about living in Halifax, N.S. is that the writing community is a manageable size and in my experience, overwhelmingly supportive. I do my bit by occasionally reading a book by a local author and that was my main motivation behind purchasing Drive-by Saviours by fellow Haligonian Chris Benjamin. I'd also been following Chris on Twitter and while we've never met, we've had brief on-line conversations that led me to expect he would be a thoughtful and articulate writer. He is, and so much more.
Drive-by Saviours is the type of debut novel I'd like to write–ambitious, impactful and sweeping. It boldly creates characters that are flawed yet sympathetic, and a plot that is unpredictable, tragic and hopeful. Rarely does a book feature strong characters and plot, one usually coming at the expense of the other, but this book has them both in equal doses.
One of the two main characters, Bumi, grows up in Rilaka, a small Indonesian fishing island. As part of Suharto's educational reforms, Bumi is forced from his home into a city school where he is expected to forget his peasant upbringing and accept a highly censored curriculum without question. Bumi is incredibly bright and rebellious, traits that prohibit his immersion into this new culture and continually land him in trouble.
The other main character, Mark, is a young social worker living in Toronto during the 2003 blackout that left the city without power for several days during an August heat wave. The blackout profoundly affects how Mark sees and relates to his fellow citizens. As I, too, lived in Toronto at that time, I found the descriptions of how people interacted during the blackout totally accurate and insightful. Chris's writing about it and his observations about multicultural Toronto in general are so astute I felt (and rather wished) I'd written them myself.
I struggled initially with Bumi's storyline and was confused by some of the Indonesian names and political events of the time. In the early chapters I yearned to stay with Mark's story. It focused on the paralyzing stasis of his relationship with his girlfriend, Sarah, and his work. The further I got into the book, however, the more I yearned to read about Bumi. His struggles were with demons real and imagined, while Mark's were more with a lurking discontentment that seemed self-indulgent when contrasted with Bumi's problems. It took a long time for these two characters to meet but as expected, they had profound influence upon one another once they did and for me, that's when the book became exciting.
While the second half felt more rushed than the first, overall the writing is well paced in that it moved the story forward but paused when necessary to paint a picture or evoke a feeling. The tale is sad but it's a beautiful melancholy. The author ambitiously weaved many important social issues into the story and managed to present them in sufficiently informed and respectful ways.
Drive-by Saviours proved to me yet again that when you buy local and read local, you discover some of the best writers live close to your home.