It's always slightly disconcerting when you start reading a novel only for real life to intrude. I started reading Lionel Shriver's sometimes unsettling satire about terrorism, The New Republic, only a day or two before the Brussels attacks. New Republic centres on would-be top-journalist, Edgar Kellogg. Kellogg is sent on his first big foreign assignment to Barba, a small (fictional) area at the tip of Portugal, that is desperate to attain independence. Barba has its own home-grown terrorism outfit, that has become notorious since popular journalist Barrington Saddler started to publicise its "work". Now Saddler has disappeared, and oddly the terrorists also seem to have vanished. What exactly is going on?

Heavily inspired by Graham Greene, Heart of Darkness and Scoop, The New Republic is sometimes a difficult read. It's occasionally very funny, most of all it's thought provoking. Shriver asks does terrorism work? How much does fear = capitulation? She also demonstrates how terrorism can be fuelled by publicity.

Occasionally it reads slightly oddly, and this, I suspect, is because of the history of the novel. Shriver originally started it in 1998, inspired, at least in part, by her experiences living in Belfast. At the time there was little interest in the USA for a novel about terrorism. Ironically post-911, it was still unacceptable, proving too uncomfortable a read with the absurd comedy of the plot being an especial concern for the publishers. Finally in 2012 it was published.

I did find some of the comic element quite challenging at first, but as the novel proceeded and the satire grew ever richer, I thought it worked really well. It's not a comfortable read, but in a world increasingly constrained by the actions of terrorists it's very much of its time. It's not the best written novel you're ever going to read, and sometimes it's not easy reading. You may often disagree with it (it certainly divided the critics), or at least with the tone, but it remains compelling, uncomfortable, thought-provoking, and at times laugh out-loud funny; it's a novel for the world that we currently live in, a world that's often not comfortable or funny, a sometimes frightening, uncertain place; but one, where humour is more important than ever.

This is the first Lionel Shriver novel I've read but I suspect it will not be the last.


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