‘Not Untrue & Not Unkind’ by Ed O’Loughlin

NotUntrue

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 288 pages; 2009.

The 2009 Booker shortlist gets announced this coming Tuesday, so I thought it was about time I reviewed one of the long-listed titles — Ed O’Loughlin’s Not Untrue & Not Unkind. I read it more than a month ago now but haven’t been able to muster up enough will power to review it because, to be perfectly honest, I found this an incredibly disappointing book.

I actually bought it long before the long-list was announced, having spied it at Dublin Airport back in mid-April. I was attracted by the story of a foreign correspondent working in Africa and liked the fact that O’Loughlin was a former foreign correspondent himself, so would no doubt know what he was talking about in the novel. Anne Enright’s coverline describing it as “the most exciting first novel I have read in many years” sealed the deal.

The story opens with Dublin-based journalist Owen Simmons riffling through the papers of a dead colleague and discovering a photograph that makes him reflect on his time, 10 years earlier, as a foreign correspondent in Africa. He then recounts an endless succession of events — genocide, war, corruption — that wouldn’t be out of place in Evelyn Waugh’s delicious satire about journalism, Scoop, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Instead of delivering a novel about those fascinating news events O’Laughlin chooses to focus the story on the people covering those events, so what we get is a kind of dry account of the camaraderie between an eclectic mix of foreign correspondents, freelancers and photographers. All of these people face enormous news-gathering challenges and experience some incredibly disturbing situations, but this tends to take a back seat to shifting love affairs and petty rivalries.

This would be perfectly fine if any of those characters were remotely interesting, but I found most of them dull, shallowly drawn and, occasionally, morally dubious.

Sadly, the narrative suffers from a lack of drive, and the only time I felt it getting exciting — when a reporter, getting worn down by the news cycle, goes off the rails in his bedroom and throws a gorilla doll out the window in a fit of blind fury — it slides back into its normal plodding pace, with journos lolling around hotel pools or boozing up in hotel bars waiting for the next story to break.

What this all amounts to is a story that lacks emotion, which is difficult to square given the fact it’s set during some of the most devastating and violent conflicts in recent times. This is such a shame, because the book had all the right ingredients for a really powerful, hard-hitting and devastating read and what you get is something as dreary as watching grass grow.

Despite this, it’s clear that O’Laughlin can write: his prose style is clear and direct, and when he describes the landscape he really comes into his own, as the following passage demonstrates:

The wind chased us to the edge of town and there it halted. It was the strangest thing. Looking back, I could see a brown spire rising over the hills and rooftops, flecked with shreds of paper and plastic, and dust devils played like stray children on the scrub at the edge of town. But ahead of us the hot vacant road shimmered in the sun and there was no wind to trouble the massive indifference of the bush.

But beautiful writing isn’t enough when the story you’re telling lacks oomph. The only saving grace is the twist at the end, when Owen realises that sometimes your past can come back to haunt you…

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11 thoughts on “‘Not Untrue & Not Unkind’ by Ed O’Loughlin

  1. I personally think Anne Enright’s recommendation would not seal the deal for me, because I find her Booker Prize winning book lacking the drive as well. That said though, I still plan to read this one.

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  2. I think my own background in journalism might have spoiled this for me, but those coming at it from a different angle may well enjoy it. I’ll be interested to hear your take on it.

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  3. I very much enjoyed Enright’s Booker winner but strangely I’ve never felt the need to read any of her other work, probably to my loss.
    Will be interested to hear your take on this one: it’s a great premise for a novel but it just didn’t work for me.

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  4. Commenting as another journalist, I too approached this book with some anticipation. Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, correspondents in Africa have no infrastructure (in the form of armed forces from the Mother Country) so they do tend to be a much more independent and off-the-wall bunch. Alas, O’Loughlin fails to develop any of that. This book has close to a dozen story lines that could have been explored to make it interesting — and the author fails to do that with even one. I agree with your review 100 per cent. A good editor would have kicked this back for one more rewrite and probably have ended up with quite a good novel. This published version is anything but.

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  5. There was just so much potential to create a really gripping narrative, wasn’t there? And yet nothing’s really developed here: everything feels too removed, too distant, too sterile and detached. This means, as a reader, you can’t engage with the narrative, and you end up not caring about any of the characters or the amazing things they must have seen and experienced while working in Africa.

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  6. I was also surprised that he left the “return to Ireland” theme relatively undeveloped. He used it for convenience but nothing more and it seemed to me there were story angles that could well have been mined.

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  7. I think it’s a myth that reporters are detached… I think it’s probably more a case that the men in this story held their emotions in check; it was the female reporter Beatrice who let her guard down. Even so, this story just failed to deliver any emotional punch, when it had so much potential to deliver on that front.

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  8. Personally wasnt a fan of this, and with my background in media I didnt like how media people were portrayed. I dont think we are that distance from things and the distance in this book for me was what didnt quite work in some way.

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