Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 2, 2022

Random Acts of Unkindness, by Anna Mandoki

Random Acts of Unkindness is Anna Mandoki’s first novel, and it’s a thoughtful debut.

Set in post-pandemic Melbourne, the novel features three women whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. This is the blurb:

Emily is a researcher at the University, carrying out experiments on overcrowding in rats. Free-spirited Amala is an international student feeling the strong tug of home. Roz is a struggling photographer who has visions of the future, although she tries her best to ignore them.
When Roz foresees a terrible tragedy, she is finally driven to act. But can she turn things around once a direction has already been set? As events rapidly escalate, all three women will be pushed to their limits and forced to revisit the choices they have made.
Dark and compelling, Random Acts of Unkindness is a novel about kindness and cruelty. Above all, it explores the importance of human connection in an increasingly fragmented world.

Middle-aged Roz is impoverished in the aftermath of the pandemic, unable to get work and judged harshly for that by a society which has taken the cashless welfare card to new extremes.  She routinely runs out of credits for food, and the last three days before Benefit Day are days when her dog eats, but she doesn’t.  Blackouts are common in this climate-changed world, but she often runs out of energy credits nonetheless and can’t afford to run AC when it’s hot, or heating when it snows. Her sole company and unreliable benefactor is Spiro, the elderly pensioner in the adjacent flat, so she is a regular at ‘Careline’, a phone counselling service staffed by volunteers such as Emily.

Middle-class Emily struggles with relationships, which is why she is well suited to working alone in the laboratory.  She also counsels troubled souls at Careline, where volunteers are trained to be empathetic but not to get involved.  (It’s done on screen, no tissue box required. ) When Roz calls up to talk about her distressing vision of a tsunami, Emily listens kindly, and trots out the usual prompts to help Roz articulate her feelings.  But she does not validate the ‘reality’ of the vision, and Roz ends the call in distress because no one will believe her.  A second more troubling call sees Emily blaming herself for her inadequacies and recognising that, for her, relationships are a matter of intellectual effort.

For some people, the ability to connect with others came naturally, entirely without effort, but not for her.  She had to work at it.  She consoled herself with the thought that maybe the next call would be better. (p.30)

Emily’s preference for rational explanations leads her to rationalise the disturbing signals that she has a stalker and to inflate her ability to deal with it.

Emily’s research into overcrowding is ironic: characters in a city crowded with climate refugees from Queensland and Pacific Islands behave as rats do when they have to compete for scarce resources. Amala, who came from India to study in Melbourne, (and is in Emily’s tutorial class) can’t manage the cost of living on what her parents have provided.  She is seduced into a flashy lifestyle of expensive clothes and a swanky address when she takes up risky sex-work, which brings her into the orbit of Emily’s sleazy father.  Amala manages to deal with an unwanted situation, but she becomes a victim entirely at random, when she tries to prevent the harassment of another woman.

BTW There are no nice men in this novel.  Rajiv seems like a nice man, and Emily thinks so too, but that turns out to be a error of judgement, which works well in this character-driven novel.

The unwanted and disbelieved visions that Roz sees are a metaphor for the real-life disasters that we see on our screens.  Roz reacts as we do, by feeling helpless to prevent natural disasters, terrorism and random acts of cruelty and violence.   Her efforts to change the future mostly fail: authorities react to her warning with a heavy-handed police response.  Although this is a novel with dark themes, it ends on a note of hope because each of the individual women responds to the ‘random acts of unkindness’ that beset them and others, by choosing to do what they can.

Random Acts of Unkindness is an interesting debut and I look forward to reading more by this author.

Author: Anna Mandoki
Title: Random Acts of Unkindness
Cover design by Abby Stout
Publisher: Midnight Sun Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9780987226587, pbk., 352 pages
Review copy courtesy of Midnight Sun Publishing


Responses

  1. This book sounds really good!

    Like

  2. Great title, and interesting cover. The cover suggests, perhaps, something lighter than it is? Anyhow, I’m keen to read post-pandemic books, to see what authors come up with. We are certainly in a “new normal” though I don’t like that phrase much.

    Like

    • The cover, yes, unlike most of the covers I come across, it has artwork specifically designed for the book by someone who’s obviously read it.

      From memory, it’s set 10 years afterward, but the political landscape of punitive meanness and disdain for the underclass is Morrisonesque and the people who voted for him.

      Like

  3. I don’t think this is for me at the moment but it does sound interesting. Lately I just want to be as far away from pandemic tales or disaster as possible, though having said that, I just ordered The End after reading Sue’s description of it. Gotta laugh! haha

    Like

    • Ah, I think you’d like this, and I reckon your book group would enjoy it too.
      It’s not about the pandemic, it’s more about what society might be like if the rebuilding phase just continues in the same heartless way. I liked it because it’s not #yawn like the usual unimaginative dystopias with an authoritarian privileged oppressive them-and-us scenario. The society is recognisably like ours is now. It’s a mirror on individuals trying to negotiate a good life amid random acts of unkindness…

      Liked by 1 person


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