Wednesday, May 5, 2010

'Not Untrue and Not Unkind' by Ed O'Loughlin

Not Untrue and Not Unkind came to most people's attention when it managed to make the Man Booker prize longlist last year. Before reading it I saw the author speaking authoritatively and engagingly on foreign news correspondence during a debate in the literary tent at the Electric Picnic. O'Loughlin worked for various newspapers, Irish and otherwise, in reporting on various conflicts in Africa over the past couple of decades. It's therefore easy to suspect that this tale of jaded foreign correspondent Owen Simmons and the various professional and romantic relationships he becomes snarled up in is more than a little autobiographical.

Reading the book would appear to confirm this. Journalist in-jokes abound, some of which hit the spot very nicely and some of which do not (constant lampooning of real-life journalist and author Jon Simpson in the bloated and laughable figure of Timothy Drysdale is hilarious, whilst references to UNICEF as 'Think of the Children' seem a little silly - though that may well be the point). Such details add colour and plausibility to the book, though they can seem a little too anecdotal. More difficult for the reader to contend with is the assumption that O'Loughlin seems to make that his readers will be familiar with the conflicts, politics and geography of central Africa. In reality, even the more informed of his readers are likely to be a little unsure as to where certain cities are in relation to each other and even less sure as to which action the Zairean government took when, and why. Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic on O'Loughlin's part in order to illustrate the confused trekking from pillar to post that war reporters must do, as dictated by those back in western newsrooms who seem to know much  more of what's going on. It's hard to tell.
Where O'Loughlin really earns his advance, and presumably that Booker nod, is in some beautifully written passages - particularly those describing Dublin, and the breakdown of a relationship. The man has a way with words, both visceral and poetic, that save this novel from drowning in its muddy context and would seem to bode well for his future as a novelist.


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