Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2011

Prohibited Zone (2011), by Alistair Sarre

I don’t read enough thrillers to know if there are many set in Australia but this one managed to overcome my resistance to reading the genre: there are no Yankee gangsters or Russian mafia men, instead the bad guys are opportunistic guards from the notorious Woomera Refugee Detention Centre out in the middle of the hostile Australian desert…

Do a Google search on Australian refugee policy and top of the search list will be articles  highly critical of government policy.  You could get the impression that everyone from Amnesty International to the UNHCR or the Jewish Board of Deputies would like a more humanitarian policy.  (And that’s now, when Woomera has been closed since 2003).  The chorus of disapproval is intense but successive Australian governments (just like other Western nations) persist with refugee deterrence regimes of one sort or another because it’s electoral suicide to do anything else.  There is a huge gulf between the public discourse of intellectuals and humanitarians on the one hand, and opinion polls on the other, and politicians know it.

So this book wearing its humanitarian heart firmly attached to its sleeve is entering into vexed territory.  It’s a brave thing for a debut author to do but he’s handled it well.  It’s an assortment of knockabout Aussies who are – in their own sweet laconic way – sympathetic to the refugee cause, and it’s their entirely convincing scepticism about all things to do with government that makes them resistant to the politics of fear and scare campaigns.  The heroes are likeable, authentic characters who swear like sailors, as far from professional do-gooders and academics as you could imagine.  They are as un-‘unAustralian’ as you could get.

As I said, I don’t know much about the thriller genre, but it’s a safe bet in the post 9/11 landscape that terrorism is a pervasive thread and that the central premise is common:

He looked like a man who believed in what he was doing, believed in the righteousness of his country.  He probably stood to attention when they played the national anthem.  Maybe he even knew the words.   He was a man who believed that the end justified the means.  Perhaps it did.  Maybe you have to fight terror with terror.  Or maybe if you do you end with something that is no longer worth fighting for. (p297)

There’s an entertaining love interest (of course).  Kara, the activist who stirs up the riot at Woomera and spirits away her tell-all source from inside, is a spiky, defensive young woman who brooks no nonsense from the male-dominated world she’s stormed into.  Steve West, her unwilling co-conspirator, already has a much sexier and certainly less demanding (married) lover and he’s an expert on avoiding commitment. As these two blunder around South Australia with their runaway asylum-seeker luring pursuit from the police, undercover agents, and opportunistic reward seekers, they constantly rub each other up the wrong way.  The dialogue between them is taut and funny and the sexual tension is palpable.   Will they or won’t they end up together?

Grunge, gratuitous violence and a surfeit of action movie cliff-hangers are what usually put me off reading thrillers, but Sarre has kept all this in check.  This is intelligent writing.  It’s exciting without being over-the-top.  (Thought to self: maybe I just haven’t read any good thrillers before?)

It would make a great film – but who should be cast in the lead roles? David Wenham is the right type but Eric Bana might be better in the role of a past-his-prime footy star.  Keisha Castle-Hughes   has the right ‘look’ for Kara, and Atossa Leoni is ideal for the beautiful Saira.  Any other suggestions?

© Lisa Hill

Author: Alastair Sarre
Title: Prohibited Zone
Publisher: Wakefield Press 2011
ISBN: 9781862549432
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Fishpond: Prohibited Zone: A Thriller in the Desert
or direct from Wakefield Press


  1. […] on from his exceptionally good debut thriller Prohibited Zone, (see my review) Alastair Sarre’s new novel Ecstasy Lake is enjoyable […]


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