Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil has been labelled Melina Marchetta’s ‘adult debut’ – that sounds like a patronising put-down from a genre snob. Along the Jellicoe Road is a superb work of fiction that exceeds the highest standards of maturity & literacy, as well of being amongst the very best novels with a school settings by a contemporary novelist. Megan Abbott’s Dare Me excels for intensity and drive, Tana French’s The Secret Place in pathos, but only Patrick Gale’s Friendly Fire matches the scope, depth, and beauty of Jellicoe and its protagonist Taylor Markham. But with TTSD Melina Marchetta moves into unfamiliar terrain, with a middle-aged English (tho’ not quite entirely English – grandfather was Egyptian and his Christian name is Bashar, hence Bish) policeman as its principal character, set in England and France (I found out that if an Englishwoman gives birth in the Channel Tunnel the child’s legal birthplace is Folkestone!) including the notorious Calais ‘Jungle’. Fear of ‘Islamic terrorism’ and its effects on innocent families is the main theme that drives the story. I’d held off writing this review because I found it so hard to get my mind around all that’s going on in this brilliantly wide-ranging book, fortunately the National Library of Australia came to my aid with this synopsis.
Chief Inspector Bish Ortley of the London Met, divorced and still grieving the death of his son, has been drowning his anger in Scotch. Something has to give, and he’s no sooner suspended from the force than a busload of British students is subject to a deadly bomb attack across the Channel. Bish’s daughter is one of those on board. Also on the bus is Violette LeBrac. Raised in Australia, Violette has a troubled background. Thirteen years ago her grandfather bombed a London supermarket, killing dozens of people. Her mother, Noor, is serving a life sentence in connection with the incident. But before Violette’s part in the French tragedy can be established she disappears. Bish, who was involved in Noor LeBrac’s arrest, is now compelled to question everything that happened back then. And the more he delves into the lives of the family he helped put away, the more he realises that truth wears many colours.
Reflecting on this book after I finished, I was struck by how much it reminded me of John le Carré’s spy novels, especially Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, his greatest. Like George Smiley, Bish is a forcibly retired middle-aged officer with a bad marriage whose mode of investigation consists mostly of going about asking questions and hearing stories that ultimately reveal what really happened. Because Bish’s teenage daughter Bee (Sabina) was nearly a victim, the ‘Home Office’ (a couple of spooks named Grazier and Eliott, the latter an old school pal of Bish’s who would be out of his depth in a car-park puddle) deploy Bish to interview the parents and survivors. He encounters massive resistance and refusal to cooperate, especially from Violette, everybody’s favourite suspect, and her mother Noor, the self-confessed perpetrator of a previous atrocity. And his daughter Bee is anything but helpful to the investigation herself, not to mention Bish’s relationship with his estranged ex-wife Rachel, about to give birth to another man’s child.
In one respect, tho’, TTSD shows its YA lineage. The teenage characters take all the prizes, for bravery, initiative, resourcefulness (at one point they steal a Salvation Army bus), and loyalty to their friends. They are also physically attractive and fit, especially in contrast to Bee’s sodden father Bish. Bee is a junior Olympic calibre runner – that figures in the plot too – as well as speaking much better French. And Violette is even more elusive, able not only to travel from Australia to France undetected, but to remain on the run in London (with a 13 year-old accomplice) for weeks with the entire British anti-terrorist establishment searching for her. At first, because we encounter them through Bish’s eyes, we find the younger characters’ evasiveness, surliness and secretiveness annoying, but long before the book ends we’re dying of envy.
The OA characters are equally well-drawn. The most striking is Noor, Violette’s mother, the confessed bomber serving a life tariff at Holloway. She was on the verge of defending her PhD thesis in molecular biology when the atrocity occurred and we discover there are strong reasons for suspecting that her confession was neither truthful nor voluntary. None the less, I found her really obnoxious. She marshals passive-aggression at the level of Blitzkrieg. She constantly whinges about bias against Muslims (‘moose-slims’) and about the persecution suffered by her family. Completely understandable. When denied all other means of self-assertion, articulate inmates resort to snarkiness and sarcasm. (The inarticulate refuse to wear uniform and decorate their cells with faeces.) We have long-since learned from Tana French, Alex Marwood, and John le Carré himself (as well as some real IRA convictions) that the authorities are totally corrupt and eagerly stitch-up any likely suspect to close the case and get their solve. Yet, tho’ at times Noor sounds like a recruiting sergeant for ISIS, in this story Bish and even his ‘Home Office’ controllers are genuinely trying to discover the truth and to exonerate the innocent, so ironically we find that if both the teenagers and Noor had been more forthcoming, this book would have been shorter, tho’ not so interesting or insightful. As it turns out, the actual explanation for the bombing is quite unexpected but thoroughly prepared. The manner in which the bus bombing was carried out was subtly clued by the author, tho’ the motive unforeseeable.
I must add a word about the audible. The British actor Zaqi Ismail was absolutely brilliant, with a wonderful repertoire of English and foreign dialects. I especially liked his version of Noor’s brother Jimmy (Jamail). His estuary dialect features a glottal stop so strong that ‘daughter’ comes out sounding like ‘door’. Bish’s mother, widow of a minor diplomat, speaks Posh, and Violette mostly Aussie, tho’ she can do Posh or Goth when necessary. The voice of Noor struck me as unlikely, sounding as if her first language were Arabic; I would have expected estuary but more upscale than her brother. But the narrator added hugely to the pleasure, just as did hearing Jellicoe Road with an Aussie voice.
After using a huge amount of space, I still feel I’ve but grazed the surface of TTSD. But I am tired and need to finish this review. Let me close simply by saying that Melina Marchetta has just demonstrated that she may well be the best contemporary novelist in the English language.