‘An Accidental Terrorist’ by Steven Lang

Uqp

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 330 pages; 2006.

An Accidental Terrorist is a debut novel that was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award 2006 and has recently earned Steven Lang the UTS Award for New Writing in the 2006 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Even before publication it won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Manuscript from an Emerging Queensland Author 2004.

So I had relatively high expectations when I first began reading this story, which is set in a small town on the southern coast of NSW (in Australia).

Here, amid the old growth forests, tensions are running high between a logging company, forestry workers and local conservationists, a distinctly Australian story that hasn’t been much explored in popular fiction (as far as I am aware).

Kelvin, a young 20-something, who has lead a somewhat depressing and rootless existence on the edge, finds himself returning to his home town, where he shacks up with the beguiling Jessica, a lawyer turned would-be writer. On a neighbouring property Carl, an American with a mysterious past, offers Kelvin work building fences on his land.

But when Kelvin makes some unlikely alliances at The Farm, the name of a communal house where a group of hippies live, he risks losing his newfound sense of security and future happiness.

Without wishing to spoil the plot, let me say that the climax is worth waiting for. Unfortunately, because it is told from too many points of view, the tension dissipates amid the readers’ confusion.

That said, Kelvin’s foray into the bush, on the run, is beautifully told: you are never quite sure whether he is going to survive the escapade or not.

On the whole An Accidental Terrorist is a well paced novel that richly captures the beauty and wonder of Australia’s old growth forests. Some of Lang’s descriptions are so evocative you can almost smell the eucalyptus wafting up off the page.

His characterisation is also spot on, and Kelvin’s back story, revealed in dribs and drabs like a slowly dripping tap, is very well done: slightly disturbing and full of pathos without sentimentality.

But there are flaws in this novel too. The reader is never quite sure whose story this is: is it Kevin’s, or Jessica’s, or Carl’s? There are too many different points of view all vying for attention.

Similarly, the reader is given few clues as to the era within which the book is set. It threw me completely when, about a third-of-the-way through, I realised it was the early 1980s, as I had mistakenly thought it was set in modern times.

But the thing that puzzled me most was this: what was Kelvin’s motivation for getting involved with the lads from The Farm? What made him do what he did? And was it really an act of terrorism or merely an act of vandalism?

If nothing else, this book asks more questions than it answers – often a sign of a good book, although in this case I feel that such questions may have been nothing more than oversights rather than any deliberate attempt to get readers thinking.

Finally, a quick word on the format of this book. At 135mm wide by 180mm high it is a delightfully “squat” book that’s easy to hold and weighs very little despite it being 25mm thick. I’ve not seen this size of novel before, and wonder if it’s typical of UQP?

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