Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 29, 2017

An Accidental Terrorist (2005), by Steven Lang (2004 Vogel winner)

I am on a roll, as they say.  My last three books have all been great reading, and interesting to me is that all three – The Custodians; Haxby’s Circus and now An Accidental Terrorist  are from the backlist.  In a way it should not be surprising that they are all beaut books because I tend to buy only books that come well-recommended, but still, the contrast between these deeply satisfying books and some more recent publications is intriguing.  Lately I have been reading blurbs and publicity materials and booksellers’ catalogues and prize shortlists – and reviews of the same titles – and finding myself not very interested.  At this rate the Miles Franklin longlist will come out – and I won’t have read much of it.  Oh well…

The reason why I hunted out my copy of An Accidental Terrorist is that in a little while Steven Lang has a new book out called Hinterland.  It’s been a long wait between novels from this fine Australian author, but lucky me, I have a copy though I am not allowed to tell you about it yet because it’s still under embargo.  I really liked Lang’s 88 Lines about 44 Women which was shortlisted amongst some very distinguished company for the 2010 Qld Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction (Brian Castro, Peter Carey, Alex Miller and J.M. Coetzee) and the 2010 NSW Premier’s Prize for Fiction  (J.M. Coetzee (again), David Malouf, Richard Flanagan and Cate Kennedy).  Somehow *smacks forehead* I had let Lang’s debut novel slip to the back of the TBR…

An Accidental Terrorist is good, very good indeed, as the judges obviously agreed when it won the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards for the Best Emerging Author.  It tells the story of a lost soul called Kelvin who gets mixed up in eco-terrorism, a term I only use to distinguish it from violent religious terrorism, with which we are now only too familiar. I would call Kelvin and his ilk activists, because what they do is not intended to cause terror to anybody but to be an economic irritant.   And as it turns out, it’s the activists who end up being terrified because they fear violent retaliation from the workers in the logging industry.

Years ago, I was in conversation (0ver a wine or two) with the then Minister for Conservation, about the perennial problem of logging in Victoria.  The Labor Party is always caught between a rock and a hard place on this, because they have environmental credentials going back to the Franklin Dam in Tasmania, but they also care about rural employment and the future of an industry that’s important in places where there are few other options.  Kay Setches was a terrific minister, smart, thoughtful and open-minded, and that evening she said she could not understand the attitude of the environmental activists because they would not listen to the facts.  ‘You don’t get it,’ I said (which wasn’t a very respectful way to speak to a minister, I blame the wine), ‘Of course they don’t listen to the facts.  With trees, it’s emotional.  People love trees, it’s like asking them to be rational about killing their children.’   If you’ve ever stood in awe in an old-growth forest with other like-minded people, you know this is true.  Amongst the derogatory labels used for people who care about conservation is the term ‘tree-hugger’ which mocks the urge to reach out and touch the bark of trees so ancient that some of them might predate Christianity.  The very idea of logging such a tree is appalling.

For those of you rolling your eyes (which Kay Setches did not do, in fact she looked startled as if she’d never realised this emotional dimension before though she may just have been surprised that someone she thought was rational, wasn’t), Lang’s novel steers an intelligent path through contentious territory.  The greenies who people his commune are middle-class dope-smoking hot-air merchants who do a lot of talking about the environment but don’t actually do anything useful to conserve it.  The central characters are all flawed in major ways, not a saint or martyr among them.  The bush turns out to be a congenial place for people hiding from their past, while the workers (who are actually planting trees at the beginning of the novel, though not the ‘right’ (i.e. replacement) sort since they are pines for future harvesting) are the sort of easy-going blokes that you meet all over Australia.  They are undereducated, unsophisticated and prone to boozy sexist gaffes, but they are hardworking, generally decent fellows who make up the backbone of the rural economy in places like the fictional Coalwater River near Eden where Lang has set his novel.

Kelvin knew these men.  Or if not them then others like them.  He’d worked with them on fishing trawlers out of Darwin.  Men called Stevo and Anthill, or Davo and Bill, strong men with few brains who yet – and this was the hard part – had lives just as rich as his own.  This being the bit he always had difficulty with: the difference between the mass of humanity, even in the shape of a small town, and the individuals within it, each with their own story.  (p,8)

Kelvin, who has the sort of sordid past that often befalls young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, is tentative with relationships with either gender.  Out of place with the team planting the pines, he takes work with Carl, an American with a past that interests the CIA, though it’s only by chance that the Australian authorities discover his whereabouts.  Jealousy, professional territories and ambition lead to a heart-stopping climax deep in the forest that would make a very fine film…

Kelvin ran.  One moment he had been crouched on the ground, the air stolen from his body, and the next he was up and running, following Carl through the trees in a purple glow.  He could not think what the glow was or why the glow was, he only ran, running down, running into the darkness and the trees past dogwood and wattle, past stringybark and grey box.  The deadness in his body which had made it so difficult to move in the logging dump had found life in him, the deadness had been his terror and the terror which had been on him like a cold hand had found in him this strange new automatic life.  He could no longer see Carl, he could only hear him.  The light was gone, they were running together in the darkness, stumbling, he was stumbling, he lost his footing and ran faster to catch himself.  He was right on top of Carl.  He managed to regain some sort of balance but had to stop, had to catch his breath, could no longer run headlong into the darkness with so little knowledge, a mind needs reference points; he held out his hand and his fingers found a tree trunk, smooth-barked, a hand’s width in diameter, and he grasped it, pulled himself up on it, swinging up around it, the tree bending with his weight, this smooth hand’s-widthed tree wrenching his arm and shoulder, darkness in front of him, suddenly silent.  He was hearing Carl’s crashing and then he was hearing nothing, nothing at all, nothing for much longer than it should have been possible to hear nothing.  (p.269-270)

An Accidental Terrorist is excellent reading.  The narrative shifts and twists from one place and time to another, but the tension never falters.  The relationships between the characters are rich and complex, and they defy easy moral judgements.  And the majesty of the NSW hinterland is never far away…

Highly recommended.

Author: Stephen Lang
Title: An Accidental Terrorist
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2005
ISBN: 9780702235207
Source: Personal library, purchased  from the ABC Shop, $22.95

Available from Fishpond: An Accidental Terrorist and direct from UQP.


  1. I would much rather things were made out of wood (or cardboard) than out of plastic, but yes I get emotional about trees, especially old trees, we don’t have enough of them and we don’t care enough about the ones we still have.


    • Exactly. Of course we need wood, and of course we need a timber industry, but logging old growth forests is not on.


  2. Looks like Hinterland is coming out here later this year? What do you mean, ’embargo’?


    • Embargo: sometimes when publishers send me books before they’re actually available to buy, they embargo any commentary or review before a set date. I forgot about this once and published a review early, and the publisher was politely cross and I had to take the review down.
      Sometimes see other reviews during the embargo period so I assume there is some kind of exclusivity arrangement with them. But I don’t actually know…
      There are rules around reviews of proof copies too: you’re not allowed to quote from the book, the cover art may not be the final one, and sometimes the book is still being edited so you can’t comment on those things. It’s not a problem for me because I don’t review proof copies, I like to get the same book that the customer gets and comment on that.


  3. Thank you, Lisa, for reminding me of this excellent novel, which I read quite a while ago. Glad you loved it as I did, and the 88 Lines one as well. Steven was one of the first authors I interviewed for my radio show…


    • Yes, indeed it is a book from ages ago. Steven is not a prolific author but I’m expecting Hinterland to be worth the wait:)


  4. Oh Lisa, you make me laugh. I can just see your wine induced conversation with the minister. Good on you for telling it like it is. Living in Tassie this is certainly an issue that is in the news a great deal of the time and you are right, it does settle comfortably? between a rock and a hard place. Great review.


    • Thanks:)
      There are other issues as well now (fracking, coal seam gas, unemployment in the Latrobe Valley) but the human pain is the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmmm, my local library and its associated network doesn’t have ANY books by Stephen Lang…


    • *smile* Remember I owe you one?! I could post you this one to return the favour:) Email me your postal address, my email address is right at the bottom of the RH menu.


      • OMG – you have a great memory. I’ll send an email. Thank you – that is very generous of you.


  6. […] 2004 — Steven Lang, An Accidental Terrorist, see my review […]


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