Tuesday, October 08, 2013

No Place Like Home by Caroline Overington

I hadn't actually read any of author Caroline Overington's books before I read No Place Like Home. What I knew of her was that she had a journalistic background, that she likes to write about current topics, and that I know several people that really like her books. You can now add me to the list of her admirers.

In the case of No Place Like Home the topic that Overington has chosen to explore is the fate of refugees when they come to a developing country like Australia - a country that prides itself on multiculturalism. Like many other countries around the world, Australia has been grappling with the issues of how to protect our borders, whilst still allowing genuine refugees the chance of a new life. It is a highly emotive and divisive issue that has been manipulated by politicians for political gain for a long time now often with a great deal of misinformation to the public. Currently our Prime Minister is trying to implement a plan to send all refugees to Papua New Guinea with the effect that even if they are found to be genuine refugees that they will not be allowed to come here. I am not sure that as a wealthy country we do enough for those who are in genuine need.

The central character in the book is Ali Khan. He is a young man from a village in Tanzania who has been shunned by his own people because he is albino and therefore is seen as evil. In the refugee camp that he is in, he is kept locked up in a cage. There an Australian aid worker finds him and goes through the process of getting him the necessary documentation so he can make a new life for himself in his new home country as a legal citizen.

The story begins when Ali Khan enters a Sydney shopping centre early one weekday morning. He begins behaving erratically and soon draws attention of security. In a moment of confusion, a young girl pulls him in to the lingerie shop that she works in thinking that she is helping him escape from another person who is causing all the fuss. Security use the opportunity to isolate him by locking him in the shop with the young girl and the three other people who also ended up in the store. They are the shop assistant who goes by the name Mouse, a young boy named Mitchell who comes from a poor family but has won a scholarship to a nearby prestigious college, a slimy real estate agent by the name of Roger and a young woman named Kimmi who works in a nearby store.

The police are quickly on the scene, working to identify who each of the people in the store are, but also most importantly, to identify what exactly the threat is. Who exactly is Ali Khan? What are his demands? Why does he look as scared as the hostages? Why hasn't he said a single word since this whole drama began? Does he really have a bomb strapped around his neck? Is this a potential terrorist attack?

One of the people that the police call in to assist is police chaplain Paul Doherty, who acts as our narrator both of the story as it unfolds, but also in the months after the events as there is media scrutiny around the case and the inquest into what exactly happened in the shopping centre that fateful day. He tells us what he has learned about each of the four hostages, why they were there that day, what the lasting impact has been on their lives and also on his own life which has undergone fundamental changes since the day of the siege.

From what I understand, Overington often uses this premise of a external and yet involved narrator telling the reader the story as it unfolds, but Paul was also able to connect with most of the other characters in a meaningful way given his role as a priest which enabled the reader to connect with them too. It is a clever way of telling the story.

Whilst the action part of the story is the events of the siege, it is really when the author casts her gaze towards the thorny issue of refugees and what happens to them once they arrive in this very different country that I was fully engaged in the story. Ali Khan's story is tragic from beginning to end. He was shunned by his community because of his skin colour both in his home country and when he came here. Through his story, we see what it might be like for a new arrival when they are placed in a community that just doesn't know how to deal with the newcomers, especially when they don't necessarily look like what they might be expected to look like. He endured a home stay with a woman who might have had some semblance of right motivation for opening her home up to those in need, but who was moralistic, judgemental, unwelcoming and mean spirited. We see what life in the detention centres might be like and how the system fails to support those who need help, usually despite the best efforts of those who are trying to work within the system.

Where can someone like Ali Khan turn to when they need help? Ali didn't know how to do the basics that we take for granted every day like having a shower or preparing food, let alone anything more complicated. And what happens when a person like Ali Khan gets lost in the system?

This is a very moving book on many, many levels. It would be great if some of those people who are sceptical of the rights of refugees could read it, but in some ways I think that there will be a self selecting audience for this book because many of the people who could be enlightened by reading it will choose not to do so. That possibly sounds a little judgemental on my part, but I know people who I would normally classify as intelligent, moral people who have no tolerance for refugees or their plights or for learning the facts about this highly emotive, highly political issue.

I am so glad to have finally read Caroline Overington. I have been meaning to do so for a while now, and now that I have I am determined to read more. I have already requested one of her earlier books from the library!

Rating 4/5

From bestselling author and award-winning journalist Caroline Overington comes another thought-provoking and heart-rending story, that reaches from the heart of Bondi to a small village in Tanzania.

Shortly after 9.30 in the morning, a young man walks into Surf City, Bondi's newest shopping complex. He's wearing a dark grey hoodie and a bomb around his neck. Just a few minutes later he is locked in a shop on the upper floor. And trapped with him are four innocent bystanders.

For police chaplain Paul Doherty, called to the scene by Senior Sergeant Boehm, it's a story that will end as tragically as it began. For this is clearly no ordinary siege. The boy, known as Ali Khan, seems as frightened as his hostages and has yet to utter a single word.

The seconds tick by for the five in the shop: Mitchell, the talented schoolboy; Mouse, the shop assistant; Kimmi, the nail-bar technician; and Roger Callaghan, the real estate agent whose reason for being in Bondi that day is far from innocent.

And of course there's Ali Khan. Is he the embodiment of evil, as the villagers in his Tanzanian birthplace believe? Or just an innocent boy, betrayed at every turn, who just wants a place to call home?


  1. Glad you enjoyed this. Now you have to read I Came To Say Goodbye. It's my favourite of all her books!

    1. I will try and get that one next from the library. Yesterday I picked up Sisters of Mercy.

  2. I discovered Caroline Overington during last year's AWW and though the two books of hers I read very, very good so I am looking forward to this one. SISTERS OF MERCY is quite brilliant and very thought provoking about a difficult subject - good to see someone tackling such topics intelligently

  3. Dear Marg,
    Reading is what I do to relax as well!
    Thank you for taking the time to read and review my book, and for recommending it to others. It's a very crowded book market out there, so I'm grateful to you.
    Kind regards,

  4. Sounds amazing! I really want to read this now!