Seeking Amnesty

“No Aussie saw this line, which followed Danny around the world; but anyone who grew up in Sri Lanka in the 1990s knows this black line, what it loudly commands of one, what it quietly permits.”

-Aravind Adiga, Amnesty

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga is the second (and last!) proof I snagged from the bookstore before I moved back home. I started it on the plane, and finished it in the first strange days of self-isolation. I absolutely loved it. This novel is about Danny, a Sri Lankan immigrant in Australia who let his student visa expire and has been living in fear of the Australian government for four years. He works as a cleaner, and one morning he learns that an old client of his has been murdered–and he’s the only one who knew she was having an affair. Over the course of the day, he travels around Sydney as he decides whether or not to call the police with the information he knows, and risk his own position in Australia.

I love murder mysteries, so I was excited about this when I read the blurb. I had no idea how stressful it would be! Adiga writes suspense with incredible skill, and the entire novel I was worried about Danny’s safety, his future, and the outcome of the murder investigation. Adiga also manages to work in a lot of backstory, however, so I felt like I knew Danny really well by the end of the novel. Certain flashbacks have titles, so I always knew where in Danny’s life I was when I was reading, and the novel’s sections are marked out by what time it is on the day of the murder investigation. Knowing what time it was in Danny’s day was useful to me as a sign post, and it also helped to increase the tension. When he was running late for an appointment at someone’s house, for example, I knew that it had already been an hour since he last called the person. I felt like I was right there, running late with him.

Amnesty also makes great use of repetition. Danny can’t get a new phone because the phone company requires identification to write a new contract, and one recurring paragraph in the novel is the text message he gets from his carrier: “As we continue to build a mobile network for the future, we will have to say goodbye to older forms of technology. That means the phone you appear to be using, a 2G phone, will no longer work from next week.” The constant reminders that Danny’s phone will shut off shows how helpless he is in a country that doesn’t acknowledge his right to exist. The novel also provides a fantastic map of Sydney. Like Ulysses and other novels that are set in one city over one day, Amnesty crisscrosses Sydney as Danny travels back and forth between his apartment (a room behind a grocery store) and his clients. Adiga shows us everything from the wealthy neighborhoods to the haunts of other undocumented immigrants like Danny, and by the end of the novel, I really wanted to visit Sydney and see all these streets in person.

Danny is not only an undocumented immigrant, he’s an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka. One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the detail about the difference between Sri Lankans and Indians. The client who was murdered and the man she was having an affair with were both Indian, and Danny’s recollections of his time with them show how differently he was treated because he wasn’t from India like them. His memories of life before he arrived in Australia also show how he was profiled: as a terrorist, as a useless son, as an immigrant not quite worthy of legal entry but not worthy of asylum, either. The only thing I didn’t love about this novel was the end. It’s narrated rather than shown in scenes, and I would have loved to be with Danny when he made his decision at the end of the day. I recommend Amnesty to anyone who likes murder mysteries, who cares about undocumented immigrants, and who’s interested in a unique tour of Sydney.

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