Every serious work of fiction should carry at least one underlying message. Some manage this with such subtlety it barely makes a conscious impression, others let it blare out loudly, covering their story with a condescending layer of preaching. Most lie somewhere in between; a reasonable balance of theme and story. In this extraordinary tale of human relationships, deceit, corruption, faith, betrayal, love, and death, Joe English has pretty well managed that difficult balance.
But this is primarily a story, for all its exposure of the sordid reality of the war on drugs, corruption in high places, and the suppurating sore that is the continued reliance on faith by so many people. It’s the story of one man’s struggle with his conscience, of one woman’s fight against injustice, of another man’s conversion from dedicated bloodhound to a more thoughtful mode, of the betrayal of trust by men who purport to care about truth, and of so much more.
The characters here are complex, real, engaging and, in some instances, foul specimens who demonstrate that existence for survival alone is an inadequate way of life for a person. These are fully developed people, though they are mostly unusual individuals; archetypes rather than stereotypes. I was hooked from the start. I cared what happened to these adventurers. I also cared that those who deserved retribution would receive it.
I’ve long held the opinion that the war on drugs is not only a waste of time, money and other valuable resources, but a shield actively defending the crooks who live off the profits of such trade. The action, and a descriptive passage, in this book perfectly illustrate the corrupt fallacy that is the continuing hypocrisy surrounding the various, selective, and discriminatory attitudes to addiction. All those who promote the war on drugs should read it, and consider the reality of this futile, unwinnable and destructive series of pointless battles.
There’s humour here, to relieve the reader from those passages that tell of grief, violence, injustice, and the hypocrisy of religious faith. There is tenderness, love, desire and sex.
I’ve found so often in books written by Americans, an unconscious assumption that the world fully understands the customs, traditions, acronyms, and institutions of the USA. As a secular humanist from the UK, much of the religious stance is alien to me, lacking any sort of logic and incapable of answering even the most basic scrutiny and analysis. Also, the political structure, which gives the impression of a scheme devised by the wealthy and power-hungry to maintain their elite status, appears unjust, inherently corrupt, and not fit for purpose. But this, of course, is not the fault of the author. The unfortunate and unintended consequence of these assumptions, however, mean certain aspects of American life are incomprehensible to the rest of the world. There’s a difficult balance to be achieved by authors from all parts of the world to provide enough information about such native norms to allow foreign readers to understand them, while not overburdening the home population with details they fully comprehend. For the most part, this book manages that balance well, failing only in a few isolated passages.
The presentation is unusual here. We hear from various narrators, in a mix of first and third person and in voices that capture the individual mannerisms and colloquialisms of the origin and environment of their locale. Understandably, some short passages require a little more dedication from the reader to interpret meaning from the sometimes rambling styles. But this all comes across as authentic and adds to the enjoyment and appreciation of the book rather than detracting from it.
This is a novel that asks important, universal questions in a narrative that engages and entertains. It’s a book worthy of recommendation, a book merging the thought-provoking with an emotional content that will satisfy the romantic while allowing the thriller reader enough action to keep the pages turning. I’m delighted I read it.
[Any review is a personal opinion. No reviewer can represent the view of anyone else. The best we can manage is an honest reaction to any given book.]
Reviews rarely, and rightly so, evoke responses from authors other than thanks, so when something unusual occurs, it seems appropriate to add it to the review. Below is a message I received from Joe English after I let him know I’d read and reviewed his excellent novel:
‘I thought you will find of interest the email a good friend of mine, Paul Godlewski, sent me in response to my having sent him your review:
This is hands down the best review that I have read regarding Shugara to date. The reviewer’s writing skills are evident and superb. I particularly enjoyed his characterization of religion “and the suppurating sore that is the continued reliance on faith by so many people.” –the “nail on the head” as far as I am concerned. Marx and Lenin had a few things right.
In the Nineteen-Fifties the U. S. government began a concentrated effort to control the type of literature that would be produced and published.
Susy Hansen, in NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY: AN AMERICAN ABROAD IN A POST-AMERICAN WORLD, delves into the shenanigans of the C.I.A. in infiltrating English departments in American universities to shape literature away from naturalistic and socially-conscious themes. In “The CIA Helped Build the Content Farm that Churns out American Literature,”[Motherboard Blog, February 11, 2014], Brian Merchant writes: “In a lengthy piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, writing professor Eric Bennett makes a case that the Iowa program, arguably the most influential force in modern American literature, was profoundly shaped by a CIA-backed effort to promote a brand of literature that trumpeted American individualism and materialism over airy socialistic ideals.”
So I should not be surprised, it seems, that A PLACE CALLED SCHUGARA must swim upstream, “ceaselessly into the past.”
Well, what more can I say but, “Thank you.” Not all of us (people on the planet) are lemmings. We must do what we can do and hope [fuck the prayers] for the best.