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Apr/May 2008 Book Reviews

Complicated Lives Under Scrutiny

Jonathan Raban.
Surveillance.

Random House. 2007. 272 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-375-42244-7

Reviewed by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! Surveillance is a disturbing but immensely readable novel which reflects the uncertainties of our world. Set in Seattle, where Raban now lives, it portrays ordinary people in a seemingly ordinary world where security, mock-terror exercises, surveillance, deception, suspicion and questions of identity increasingly intrude into their lives.

This is the Seattle of tomorrow, but only just. Everything Raban describes is already there in some degree (as it is in every other big city) and the gradual and insidious loss of personal freedom is something we already live with. In Surveillance, Raban shows how effortlessly government controls can escalate and how easily people adapt to them and treat them as normal and harmless.

Lucy Bengstrom is a freelance journalist, a parent by accident and single by choice, and an intelligent, likeable character. Her daughter, eleven-year-old Alida, speaks and acts like any normal American pre-teen (Raban has a superb ear for dialogue), testing the waters of adulthood, puzzled by its emotional intricacies. Tad Zachary is an actor, a neighbour and a good family friend. He has adopted the role of stepfather to Alida, but he is dealing with the recent death of his partner, Michael, and his own questionable health. Into their lives come Mr. Lee, the new owner of their apartment block, who has identity problems and grand plans, and August (Augie) Vanags, author of a best-selling book about his survival as a boy in Europe during the horrors of the Second World War.

Lucy is commissioned by a big magazine to interview Vanags. She finds him surprisingly easily and discovers that he is not the recluse he is made out to be. But her growing familiarity with him and his wife, together with the way in which he and Alida get along, threatens her journalistic objectivity. When doubts are raised about the veracity of Augie's identity and the truth of the claims he makes in the book, Lucy is in a dilemma.

Alida is clever at maths but a dunce, so she thinks, at human relationships, so she tries to analyse them using algebraic formulae. It is complicated and it doesn't always work, but it helps. One of her classmates is arrested (it would spoil the book to explain why, but the crime is thoroughly modern and completely understandable) and Alida is full of admiration for him. She is full of admiration, too, for Augie Vanags, who teaches her to kayak and treats her like an adult.

Mr. Lee's plans for his own future include the need for a wife. He carefully lists Lucy's assets (including: being a US citizen, secretarial skills, a ready-made family and potential gratitude to him for being chosen) and decides she will do. Lucy's reaction when he offers her this great opportunity precipitates a crisis, but meanwhile Tad has discovered a valuable secret about the unsavoury Mr. Lee.

Everything in this novel moves at high speed against a background of incidental events and conversations associated with security. Lucy watches as a casual acquaintance is arrested on suspicion of terrorist activities; Tad surfs the Net looking for leaked secrets, corruption and incompetence to fuel his hatred of the President and administration; Augie argues for the recognition of the real threat of terrorism and the need for less complacency in this fight, which he calls World War Four. Nothing is ever certain and Raban handles it all with skill and humour. He handles it so well, in fact, that we easily identify with these people and accept as perfectly normal the world in which they live.

Just so, can the increasing restrictions imposed on our own freedoms in the name of security creep up on us until those freedoms are irretrievably lost. But Raban is never polemic (although Augie can be, at times) and we are drawn in by his story until we want to know what happens to these people and how the specific problems they face are resolved. The disappointment is that we never do, because the ending is as uncertain as everything else in the book. Maybe that is realistic, but it seems as if Raban has taken an easy way out. Maybe this book is just the first in a series and Raban will enlighten us in the next volume. Maybe, but judging by the way the world is in this book, I wouldn't count on it.

 

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