6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘How To Do Nothing’ to ‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeA pinch and a punch for the first of the month!

Yes, it’s August 1, which means if you are a horse, it’s time to celebrate your birthday! And if you are a book blogger, it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a book meme that runs the first Saturday of every month that is hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Here’s my contribution. For a bit of a change, I’ve decided to focus on narrative non-fiction titles only. As ever, click the pink hyperlinks to read my review of that book in full.

The starting point is:

‘How To Do Nothing’ by Jenny Odell (2020)

I’ve not heard of this non-fiction book before, but it sounds interesting. As much as I like to be productive, I have long argued that it’s important to do absolutely nothing as well… it helps recharge the batteries. But given I haven’t read the book, it’s a bit difficult to know what to link it to next, so I’ve simply gone by the title. Another non-fiction book with “nothing” in the title is…

‘Nothing to Envy’ by Barbara Demick (2010)

This is an award-winning non-fiction book about life in North Korea. Demick, an American journalist, tells the stories of six individual people living in Chongjin, the nation’s third-largest city, and does so in a totally compelling and gripping way. I’ve read many books about life in the world’s most secretive state but this is by far the best because it presents such a marvellous and eye-opening overview, not just of the people, but of its history and oppressive political system.

Another book about North Korea, written by a rare defector, is…

‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John) (2016)

This is an inspiring and harrowing true-life story about escaping North Korea’s brutal regime. Hyeonseo Lee came from a relatively comfortable family, but when her father died, she made a fateful — and terribly naive — decision: to cross the border and visit relatives in China for a few days, thinking she could return without any consequences. She was just 17. Sadly, she was never able to go back.

This is a gripping story about resilience and reinventing yourself. Another book about someone who had to do that to survive is…

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver) (2014)

Dr Munjed Al Muderis is an orthopaedic surgeon based in Australia. He has pioneered techniques for treating soldiers who have lost limbs. But he was once a refugee. This book recounts his perilous journey from Sadaam Hussain’s Iraq, which he fled to escape certain death, to Christmas Island, an Australian territory south of Indonesia, where he claimed asylum. He was later detained at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia for processing, but instead he was given a number and treated like a criminal, effectively kept behind bars for 10 months…

It’s a damning portrait of Australia’s immigration detention system. Another book that is a damning portrait is…

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani (2018)

Winner of Australia’s richest literary prize, this is a true-life account of what it is like to be caught up in Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention system. It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, poet, scholar and filmmaker, who was detained on Manus Island for more than four years. His account is a valuable insight into what happens to men, cut off from family and vital support networks, when they are subjected to inhumane treatment.

Another book about refugees, but in this case from the perspective of trying to help them, is…

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

‘The Optician of Lampedusa’ by Emma Jane Kirby (2016)

This tells the true story of an optician, his wife and six of their friends who rescued 47 migrants off the coast of Sicily late in the summer of 2013. The migrants had been fleeing Africa and were on a seriously overcrowded boat that capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. At least 300 people drowned.

While the book sometimes labours under its own weight, it does put a very human face on those caught up in rescue efforts and shows the psychological impacts on them. It’s a story that shows two sides of the one coin: the worst of humanity, and the best of it, too.

Another non-fiction book that shows the best and worst of humanity is…

‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’ by John Leake (2007)

This book recounts the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer, who was hailed as Austria’s greatest example of criminal rehabilitation. While serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of a teenage girl, Jack developed a flair for writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction. His work was so well received he became the darling of the literary elite who campaigned, successfully, for his early release in 1990. But Jack hoodwinked everyone into thinking he had put his criminal past behind him while living a secret life as a serial killer…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a book about doing nothing, to a story about a writer who did something terrible, linked via life in North Korea, the story of a defector, escape from Iraq, detainment on Manus Island, and saving refugees in Italy.

Have you read any of these books? Care to share your own #6Degrees?

Book lists

16 books for 16 years of blogging

Sometime this week marks the 16th birthday of this blog. (I’m not sure of the definite date, only that it was the first week of March 2004.)

To celebrate the occasion I thought I’d create a special list, choosing an influential book for every year I’ve been blogging.

Each of the 16 books I have chosen left a lasting impression on me in some way, either by taking me into new reading territory or introducing me to a new favourite author.

Without further ado, here is my list arranged in chronological order beginning with 2004.

Year: 2004
Book: ‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn
What it is about: A comedy of manners featuring two Fleet Street journalists in the 1960s who spend most of their time in the pub wishing they could break into the more lucrative business of television reporting.
How it influenced me: It opened my eyes to a whole new “genre” of books about newspaper journalists. I’ve read quite a few since then and have a list of my favourite 10 here.

Year: 2005
Book: ‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills
What it is about: An allegory exploring whether the grass is greener on the other side.
How it influenced me: Reading this strange, quirky book turned me into a lifelong Magnus Mills fan. I’ve read all of his novels since then. You can read those reviews here.

The Barracks by John McGahern

Year: 2006
Book: ‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern
What it is about: A former nurse in war-torn London returns to rural Ireland, where she marries a policeman much older than herself and becomes stepmother to three children. When she develops breast cancer, she hides the diagnosis from everyone bar the local priest.
How it influenced me: After reading this book it made such an impression on me I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue. That same year I read two more by him. He promptly became my favourite writer. I even went to County Leitrim, where McGahern was from, to hunt out haunts mentioned in his novels and his memoir.

Year: 2007
Book:  ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin
What it is about: Three generations of Irishwomen, estranged for years, reluctantly join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.
How it influenced me: It turned me into a life-long Toibin fan and I’m slowly but surely making my way through his backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Tarry Flynn

Year: 2008
Book:
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh 
What it is about: This is a joyous bittersweet novel about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s.
How it influenced me: It opened my eye to the concept of “rural novels”, especially ones about farming, which I have sought out ever since.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

Year: 2009
Book: ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow
What it is about: A gentle coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War.
How it influenced me: I loved this book so much I actually read it twice in a year. It also made me want to read his entire back catalogue, but at the time most of it was out of print. Fortunately, Text Classics has since rectified this and I have them all lying in wait.

Year: 2010
Book: ‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean
What it is about: Set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, this profoundly moving story looks at both sides of the “dirty protest” carried out by political prisoners held in The Maze prison.
How it influenced me: As well as making me want to read more books by Louise Dean, it encouraged me to seek out more novels from Northern Ireland. Through this exploration, I have discovered the likes of David Park and Deidre Madden.

Devotion of Suspect X

Year: 2011
Book:  ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
What it is about: This is an extraordinary crime novel which bucks the normal conventions of the genre: we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up, but we don’t know the steps taken to protect the real murderer.
How it influenced me:  This book got me into Japanese crime fiction, including several by Higashino, as well as wider Japanese literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Year: 2012
Book: ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf 
What it is about: Set in rural Colorado in the 1980s, this gorgeously bittersweet story follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, including two old bachelor brothers, who run a farm and take in a pregnant teenager kicked out of home.
How it influenced me: This book rocketed straight into my all-time favourite reads. I loved its rural setting (see Tarry Flynn above) and its eccentric, warm-hearted characters, but most of all I loved the eloquent and elegant prose style. I have since read all of Haruf’s backlist. Sadly, his death a few years ago means there’s no more left for me to read.

Year: 2013
Book: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham [not reviewed]
What it is about: This doorstep of a novel follows the life and times of an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It’s a profoundly moving book because it shows what happens to people when there is no welfare state. I loved this book so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it.
How it influenced me: Since reading this book, I’ve been happily working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Year: 2014
Book: ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’ by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond [not reviewed]
What it is about: This award-winning book examines racism in sport. It charts the story behind the image that is on its front cover — Aboriginal Australian AFL footballer Nicky Winmar pointing to his chest declaring he was “proud to be black” after enduring racist abuse during a football match on 17 April 1993 — and puts it into the wider context of Australian society.
How it influenced me: I’m not a football fan, but this book proved to be a compelling account of an important issue. I read Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is about rape culture in the AFL world, at around the same time and it was equally as compelling. But the Winmar story was the one that sent me off on a new journey exploring indigenous issues, including Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and Cal Flynn’s Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir.

Year: 2015
Book: ‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut 
What it is about: Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of two doctors working in a deserted rural hospital who must share lodgings. It is a fascinating portrait of male friendship amid huge societal changes as the “new” South Africa shakes off its dark history.
How it influenced me: This book, with its effortless, dreamy prose, turned me into a Galgut fan. I’ve read four more novels by him since reading this one.

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Year: 2016
Book: ‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)
What it is about: The true-life story of an Iranian refugee who was held in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia. After surviving this hellhole for 10 months, he eventually gained his freedom. He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style.
How it influenced me: This book opened my eyes to Australia’s shameful and inhumane policy of detention for refugees and asylum seekers, and made me more conscious of the issues facing those people seeking new lives against the odds.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Year: 2017
Book: ‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower
What it is about: Set in Sydney one hot summer, it tells the story of an abusive marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
How it influenced me: Even though I’d read two books by Harrower before, this was the one that made me sit up and pay attention. Her ability to evoke atmosphere and to capture the inner-most workings of the human soul are just brilliant. I am on a mission to read all of Harrower’s work. This is what I’ve read so far.

Lie with me

Year: 2018
Book: ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
What it is about: This book nicely fits into the “holidays from hell” genre. It’s a psychological thriller set on a Greek island but is told from the perspective of a nasty, conniving narrator who you are never quite sure whether to trust.
How it influenced me: I always like a good psychological-thriller-come-page-turner and it’s such a relief to find a new author who you can rely on to offer up a great story. I have since read several more by this author.

Year: 2019
Book:  ‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor 
What it is about: This is a black comedy about four septuagenarians who all went to boarding school together more than 50 years earlier and behave very much as you would expect a group of immature schoolboys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.
How it influenced me: I had previously read quite a bit of Trevor’s later work and I associated him with poignant tales of thwarted love in rural Ireland, but this book showed me that his early work was very different (this was his debut novel): it was set in London and darkly comic. I have since read several more of his earlier novels and hope to work my way through his massive backlist. All my reviews of his work are here.

So, there you have it. These are the most influential books I’ve read in the past 16 years. I’m conscious of the fact that this is a very male-dominated list. But I’m sure that if I compiled this list tomorrow, the books here would probably be different. For now, this will have to do.

Have you read any of this list? Or care to share your own influential reads?

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.

FICTION

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
CRIME
LITERARY FICTION
HISTORICAL FICTION
DYSTOPIAN FICTION
EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
SHORT STORIES

NON-FICTION

TRUE CRIME
ESSAYS
MEMOIR

Reading Australia 2016

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2016

Books-of-the-yearWhat a reading year it has been!

As you’ll no doubt know, I challenged myself to read Australian literature all year — and what an enjoyable, entertaining, intriguing and wonderful exercise that turned out to be. The scope and range of the books I read — both fiction and non-fiction — never ceased to amaze and delight me, so much so I’ll write a separate post about it at a later date.

During the year I also read a handful of Canadian books, thanks to my participation in the Shadow Giller Prize (which I’ve been doing every year since 2011), and five amazing British titles thanks to my involvement in shadowing The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016.

All up I read around 65 books, which is substantially fewer than my usual yearly average of around 75 to 80. (I can only blame excessive use of Twitter sucking up all my time, a lot of extra-curricular freelance editing on top of the day job in the first six months of the year, and two changes of day job, one in May and one in October.)

Choosing my favourite ten reads was no mean feat. I read so many great books. But here are the ones that have left a lasting impression (note they weren’t all published this year).

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Floundering by Romy Ash
Floundering by Romy Ash (2012)
A woman “kidnaps” her two sons from the grandparents who are raising them and takes them on a road trip one hot Australian summer. It’s narrated by the youngest son, who soon realises their holiday by the sea isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Heartbreaking and poignant, I loved this book and still think about it almost a year after reading it.

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig  (2016)
This bold experimental novel is set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family. It’s written stream-of-consciousness style and is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I was gripped from the first line.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton
Aunts Up the Cross by Robin Dalton (1965)
This delightful memoir had me tittering away at every madcap episode and anecdote related in Dalton’s droll, self-deprecating prose. Her tale about growing up in an unconventional household in Sydney’s King’s Cross in the 1920s and 30s is by far the most cheerful thing I read all year. I loved it.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Talking to My Country by Stan Grant (2016)
Another memoir, this is the one every Australian should read to find out what it’s like growing up as an indigenous person in a culture so firmly rooted in white colonialism. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. It’s the book that has had the most marked impression on me this year.

The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016)
One of the best crime novels I’ve read in years, this one — set during the worst drought in a century — rips along at a fair pace and has enough red herrings to keep the most jaded reader guessing. And it’s wonderfully evocative — of both the Australian landscape and the people who inhabit small, rural communities.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr (2015)
This is — hands down (pun sort of intended) — my favourite novel of the year. In quiet, understated prose Orr presents three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback over the course of two years (2004 to 2006). It is, by turns, charming, funny and deeply moving, reminding me very much of the eloquent fiction of the late Kent Haruf.

True Country by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott (1999)
This extraordinary debut novel — Scott has since won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice —  tells the story of a young teacher who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school. The community is plagued with problems, but Billy sees beyond that and finds himself coming to terms with his own Aboriginal heritage and forging rewarding relationships with the people and the landscape around him.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (2016)
A page turner of the finest order, this clever story largely revolves around a painting by a (fictional) 17th century Dutch painter, the first woman to ever become a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Holland. Spanning three centuries and three cities, it begins as a crime story before it morphs into a mystery-cum-thwarted-romance-cum-cat-and-mouse-suspense tale. It’s a hugely entertaining read.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning: A Memoir by Magda Szubanski (2016)
This is the third memoir to make my top 10! It is a wonderfully entertaining account of Magda’s life lived in the shadows of her Polish father, an assassin during the Second World War. As an exploration of a father and daughter relationship, it is superb; as an examination of the personal legacy of war and the way that legacy filters down through the generations, it is extraordinary. But it’s also a moving account of Magda dealing with her own demons, including depression and coming to terms with her sexuality.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
A rare example of a book matching the hype, I loved Wood’s thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which woman are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours. Written in a cool, detached voice throughout, the story follows a group of prisoners and their jailers over the course of a year. Fuelled by a quiet rage, this book rails against modern misogyny and should be required reading for men and women everywhere.

I’d also like to award honourable mentions to two more books, both of them non-fiction: Walking Free by Munjed Al Muderis (2014) and Big Blue Sky by Peter Garrett (2015) (review forthcoming). These made me see the challenges facing refugees and politicians, respectively, in a whole new light.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2016?

I’m taking a little blogging break, but before I go I’d like to thank you for your valued support during this past year. Whether it was by sending me an email, visiting this blog or Reading Matters’ Facebook page, leaving a comment, clicking “like” icons or linking back to me from your own blog, it’s all very much appreciated and makes the whole experience of running this blog so much more enjoyable. 

Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! And I hope to see you back here for more literary chat and great book recommendations in mid-January.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Dr Munjed Al Muderis, Iraq, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 320 pages; 2014.

You may have heard of Dr Munjed Al Muderis — he’s an orthopaedic surgeon who has pioneered techniques for treating soldiers who have lost limbs. But he wasn’t always so well-known or successful. He was once a refugee.

Walking Free is the book he penned a couple of years ago with the help of journalist Patrick Weaver. It’s the kind of book I’d love to shove into the hands of every politician, policymaker and racist in the West. Not only does it tell the extraordinary tale of one man’s bid for freedom, it’s an illuminating, often anger-inducing, look at the way we treat refugees. And, if nothing else, it highlights that refugees are human beings — with life experiences, knowledge and skills to benefit us all.

Life under Saddam

Muderis was born into a rather privileged family in Iraq — he is descended from the Prophet Mohammed and one of the nine families that originally ruled Baghdad — in 1972. When he was a school boy, Saddam Hussein came to power. There were wars with Iran and Kuwait, the latter interrupting his plan to study medicine in New York. Instead he applied, and was accepted, to study medicine in Basra. Marriage and a child followed shortly after.

Then I was accepted into the surgical training program. It was a dream come true. I’d wanted to be a surgeon—especially an orthopaedic surgeon—since I was twelve or thirteen and saw the first Terminator movie. The idea of half man, half machine really captured my imagination and made me think that in future surgeons would be able to replace damaged or amputated limbs with mechanical devices. My enthusiasm to become a surgeon was boundless, but resources were hard to come by. For urgent use, we were reduced to keeping drip lines, saline solution and such things in our lockers in the on-call room, because the supplies just weren’t available.

Things took a turn for the worse when Muderis, now 27, was working as a junior surgeon in the Saddam Hussein Medical Centre in Baghdad. It was 1999. A busload of army deserters were hauled into the hospital and Muderis and his surgical colleagues were ordered to cut off the tops of their ears. The order came direct from Saddam Hussein. When one surgeon objected on the grounds of the Hippocratic oath of “do no harm” he was taken outside and summarily executed by gunfire. Muderis, aware that the same would happen to him, did the only thing he could think of: he hid in the women’s toilet for five hours and then fled when the coast was clear.

He knew he was now a marked man, and for the next few weeks lived a life on the run, eventually getting across the border to the relative safety of Jordan with the help of family and friends. He then flew to Malaysia, the only place in the world where Iraqi citizens did not need a visa, and unwittingly fell in with a pair of refugees who were aiming to get to Australia with the help of some human traffickers.

Holed up in Indonesia, he expected to wait months to get himself on an illegal boat to Christmas Island, an Australian territory south of Indonesia, but he was able to jump the people smuggling queue because a doctor was needed on board the next “ferry” out. What ensued was a frightening drama at sea — more than 160 people crammed on a boat designed for 50, with basic food, scarce medical supplies and scarce water.

I knew we were all in for a horror of a journey. You didn’t need to be a medical expert to figure out this was a recipe for disaster. […] We had heard on the news when we were in Jakarta about a refugee boat that had left a few days before ours and had sunk. No survivors. So our tenuous grip on life was extremely high in our consciousness.

Arrival in Australia

When the boat eventually arrived at Christmas Island after a hideous and perilous journey (the captain abandoned ship long before it landed), Muderis found a warm welcome, but it was not to last long. He, along with all the other refugees, were shipped to the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia — about as far from civilisation as you can get and described by the Refugee Action Council of Victoria as “the worst of Australia’s hellholes”. It was here that Muderis says he was treated like a criminal, verbally abused and “constantly told I should return as soon as possible to my homeland”:

Climbing from the bus was like walking into an oven. The heat hit us immediately and, to make matters worse, seemed to be reflected from the desert earth. Straightaway, a guard was there with a permanent marker pen, writing a number on our wrists and shoulders. It wouldn’t wash off. And that was our new identity. From then until the day I left Curtin, I was known by the authorities only as 982. Never by my name. Just my number. […]

Later, we were given photo identity badges with our allocated number. It was, as many things were in Curtin, completely dehumanising. And, I feel certain, it was purposely so. Our initial contact with the Curtin officers was equally as confronting and depressing. ‘Go home,’ they were telling us. ‘If you think Australia’s a land of milk and honey, think again.’ And: ‘Be careful, there are deadly spiders and snakes all over the camp and if they bite you, they can kill you in a few minutes. There’s nothing you’ll be able to do.’ Welcome to Australia.

To cut a long story short, Muderis was eventually given refugee status and allowed to stay in Australia — but it was a long 10 months to get there, having been punished with solitary confinement on several occasions and being sent to an actual prison (where the conditions were so much better than the camp) for a short stint. And despite this inhumane treatment — Muderis calls his experience at Curtin as “the ultimate dehumanisation” — he decided to adopt Australia as his homeland and get on with the business of leading a full and productive life.

He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style. Ironically, much of his work helps soldiers who lost limbs in the Iraqi war.

A compelling true story

There’s no doubt Walking Free is a compelling and powerful true story. Indeed, it is almost too outrageous to be true — to go from refugee to world-leading orthopaedic surgeon seems like something only a Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with. And yet the tale that is told here, linear fashion and occasionally clunky (it takes a while to get going), is entirely factual.

I went through a whole gamut of emotions reading it — from shame to anger and everything in between — but came away feeling buoyed up by hope. Yet I can’t help thinking that Muderis survived because he was resilient, strong and resourceful — what of those other refugees less able to cope?

Recently a video of Dr Al Muderis featured on the home page of the Guardian website. You can also view a YouTube video of him doing a TED talk about his journey from refugee to surgeon in Sydney last year:

 

For another take on Walking Free, please see Lisa from ANZ LitLovers review.

This is my 35th book for #ReadingAustralia2016