Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 26, 2019

Daughter of Bad Times, by Rohan Wilson

Rohan Wilson (featured here in Meet an Aussie Author) is one of my favourite authors.  From his debut novel The Roving Party (which won the Vogel and a swag of other prizes) to his second, the award-winning To Name Those Lost, he is an author whose books offer a forensic insight into human brutality.  But while both Wilson’s previous books were set in colonial Tasmania, his new novel, Daughter of Bad Times is set in the future.  It is a foreseeable future which is uncannily like our own times.

The ‘daughter of bad times’ is the obscenely wealthy Rin Braden, whose adoptive mother Alessandra is the billionaire head honcho of a corrections company.  Cabey-Yasuda Corrections a.k.a. CYC has made its money by repurposing climate change refugees, and the Australian government is only too happy to be complicit in a facility called Eaglehawk in Tasmania, where stateless people who survived the sinking of the Maldives as the ocean rose, are lured to factory work in abominable conditions on the promise of a visa at the end of it.  The canny economics of this arrangement mean that these non-citizen detainees have to pay for everything they use, from their relocation expenses to toilet paper to their daily meal, all from an inadequate salary.  This makes it impossible ever to pay off their debt but still they go without all but the bare necessities because to do otherwise would be to lose all hope.  Those Muslims who have not lost their faith after a man-made catastrophe which has left them with nothing—not even their families—perform their daily prayers on bits of cardboard salvaged from the factory.

So yes, this is a political novel, written with the same passion and intensity as Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist and it shares some of the same flaws.  It’s not subtle, and some aspects are not very convincing.  I don’t pretend to be an economist, but I can’t see any rationale for any company to use people in manufacturing that could be done by robots.  The only reason governments and corporations care about people having jobs is so that they can spend money: that’s what’s profitable, and that’s what keeps the economy churning.  But if workers of any kind can’t spend money, they are not consumers and they’re a drain on the economy.  This is the economic reality now, and will by more so by the 2070s when the novel is set. [Correction: please see my update about this, below.]

However, the truths of this novel overtake any flaws in the scenario.  Suspenseful thrillers can count on readers to suspend judgement about such flaws as the plot’s urgent momentum carries them along, and the love story is convincing enough, with all its conflicts and misunderstandings and raw passion.  And besides, the raison d’être for the novel is compelling. This is what Rohan Wilson says in the press release that came with the book:

Like a lot of people these days, I’ve found myself fighting pessimism.  I don’t believe I’m a glum sort of person, either.  But it should be clear to all right-thinking people that the economics foisted on us by big business have grown more and more dystopian.  What on earth have we done to ourselves?  Turned over whole segments of our lives to the billionaire class?  Given away control of our politics to a greedy minority?  Locked up the people who turn to us for help?  It’s enough to make the best of us into cynics.  I don’t want to grow cynical—I want to resist.  This book, Daughter of Bad Times, emerges from the need to understand what we face in order that we might start changing it.

(BTW he wrote that before the May 18th election).

Australians don’t come out of the novel very well.  The central characters are Rin Braden who is Japanese-American and Yamaan from the non-existent Maldives, plus his friends among the refugees. Though the facility guards, corrupt politicians, lawyers and Royal Commissioners who enquire into the riot at Eaglehawk may have names indicating ethnic heritage, the driving force behind the refugee policy and its cynical exploitation of desperate non-citizens, is the Australian polity. Collectively, Wilson’s Australians whatever their origin have turned a blind eye to refugees from the rising oceans and the dehumanising conditions under which they now live.  After the 2019 election results it’s tempting to concede this is contemporary reality, but nationally the vote for parties with a more humane policy for refugees was 43%.  A minority Labor government under pressure from the Greens could well have changed the existing ‘hostile environment’ as a cruel deterrent to refugees.  The vote was not enough to win the election, and other policies may also have influenced voting decisions, but still, the electorate is not as heartless as the novel implies.

Nevertheless, Daughter of Bad Times is a vision of our profit-driven future that needs to be confronted.  And even though thrillers are not my usual reading fare, trust me, it’s a real page-turner!

Theresa reviewed it too, at Theresa Smith Writes.  She says it’s not her kind of book either but she found it compelling.

Update, later the same day: I’ve had an email from Rohan, explaining that I’ve got it wrong with my assumptions about the economics of work in detention centres.  From what this article in the NYT says, his scenario is already happening and forced labour is already occurring in immigration detention centres in the US.  So the novel’s scenario is actually close to what actually happened with convicts at Port Arthur, as referenced in the novel.

Apologies to Rohan!

Author: Rohan Wilson
Title: Daughter of Bad Times
Publisher: ALlen & Unwin, 2019, 327 pages
ISBN: 9781760529130
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Daughter of Bad Times and good bookshops everywhere


Responses

  1. I finished reading it last night. Uncomfortable. Thought-provoking. And when I’ve finished thinking, I’ll write a review.

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    • Yes, it does make for uncomfortable reading. Just opening a page at random right this minute, there’s the ‘draft law extending the use of robotics deployments in aged care homes’ om p163. I cannot imagine anything more dehumanising for elderly people in care, and yet I know that this is ‘being trialled’ already here in Australia.
      I look forward to seeing your review too:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this review! Your points on the economics of this sort of set up are definitely valid.
    On a more superficial note, did you dislike Rin as much as I did? I found her undeveloped as a character, swinging a bit too much. Some more depth on her adoptive mother might have been nice too, to enlighten about the whole ‘I hate my mother so much’ angle.
    I think for me, with this novel, the issues worked, but the characters let it down.

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    • I didn’t like Rin, but I don’t think we were meant to. Yamaan is a vulnerable character right from the start, and yes, although the physical attraction is obvious there is an element of him being a plaything at the beginning. But I think she grows in maturity and in moral stature as the novel progresses, just as he does #Ooops nearly gave away a spoiler there!
      The other thing is, it’s over 300 pages long, and any further character development might have made it too long for itself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • True, it really wasn’t that type of story.

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        • I find it hard to review books like this when they are not really my thing, but that makes the author’s achievement even more impressive because he’s got under my guard and kept me reading when I’m out of my comfort zone.

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          • I would never have read this if it hadn’t been sent to me by the publicist. I only really read it on a whim. Sometimes this works out and you end up reading something worthwhile, that stretches you.

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            • Yes, I don’t want to waste my time reading something I’m pretty sure I won’t like, especially since it’s really hard to write a fair review if it’s just a genre I don’t enjoy – but I try not to be too hard and fast about what I’ll read.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. I still haven’t read a novel by Rohan Wilson – one day. I haven’t read your review past the opening paragraph though I suspect that it’s probably not going to be the Wilson I read from your description of the genre. I did enjoy yours and Theresa’s comments though!

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    • Well, if I can influence you… start with the first one, and then you’ll be so impressed you’ll read all the others too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha Lisa… You often influence me… Just need more hours!

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        • I think you’ll find his novels are easy to read: the narrative just flows:)

          Liked by 1 person

  4. After years of reading SF I don’t say that the exploration of ideas and character development don’t go together, just not very often. As for your 43% – there’s an awful lot of Labor voters who are anti-refugee, just look at the Gillard Government, many of the members of which would have been in a Shorten government.

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  5. Oh yes, absolutely true, Labor’s record of cruelty is there for all to see. However what is also true is that they had a slightly better policy than the LNP and the 43% did vote for that.
    Honestly, I don’t know what more we can do about this issue…

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    • Youngest daughter is on an interstate (and multi-ethnic) committee, working with refugees, and there is a feeling there between despair and desperation since the election. So much of our future, our decency sacrificed on the altar of one uneconomic coal mine from which Qld might see 1 or 2 hundred jobs.

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      • There’s a really confronting program running on SBS at the moment called 8 Days. It’s about a European refugee crisis, where they are trying to flee and everyone is turning them away. It’s very powerful because it shows the desperate measures people would take in order to escape.

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  6. […] decisions that governments make in our name.  Sometimes as in Rohan Wilson’s new novel Daughter of Bad Times they force us to confront unpalatable truths about cruelty and neglect in which we are complicit, […]

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  7. […] by characters impossible to forget.  The near-future in which the book set, is (rather like Rohan Wilson’s Daughter of Bad Times) not really the future at all.  The story’s timeline is only a few decades away, but the […]

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  8. […] Daughter of Bad Times by Rohan Wilson, see my review; […]

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  9. […] The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award – $15,000 • Bodies of Men (Hachette) by Nigel Featherstone, see my review • Too Much Lip (UQP) by Melissa Lucashenko, see my review • Shell (Scribner) by Kristina Olsson, see my review • Exploded View (Text) by Carrie Tiffany, see my review • Daughter of Bad Times (Allen & Unwin) by Rohan Wilson, see my review […]

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  10. […] Daughter of Bad Times, by Rohan Wilson […]

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