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nicholas shakespeare’s brilliant oddfellows

oddfellows

The first great novel of the year, Nicholas Shakespeare’s ODDFELLOWS is a sublimely sparse and economically elegant powder keg of a story, detonated by an historical event that resonates explosively a hundred years since.

New Year’s Day is Manchester Unity Day, and the friendly society’s picnic, organised by the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows, the greatest gathering of the year in Broken Hill.

On New Year’s Day, 1915, Broken Hill played host to the only enemy attack to occur on Australian soil in World War One.

Two disgruntled Muslims, a butcher and an ice cream vendor, took their personal grievance of being prejudiced against, and wrapped it in the grander, global goings-on that would soon spawn the guts and glory apotheosis of Gallipoli.

Personally peaceful and placid, Gul Mehmet, the ice confectioner, and Molla Abdulla, the halal slaughterman, had endured the discrimination of adherents of the White Australia Policy, a sizeable slice of the population, for decades.

The fact that Molla Abdullah was not a member of the Butcher’s Employees Union in the most unionist town in the country had brought him into confrontation with those who needed no excuse to treat a Pathan from India’s north-west frontier as an enemy alien.

Gul was an Afridi from the Tirah Valley who had travelled to Australia on an Afghan promise of cameleering for three quid a month, but found himself destitute due to a discrepancy in the pledge.

Drifting down to Broken Hill, he mined for a time, but with the advent of the war with Germany, workers were laid off, – Germans being the principal buyers of lead and zinc from Broken Hill.

Disenfranchised and discriminated against, prosecuted and persecuted, these two men became radicalised, forged in a furnace of unfairness, beaten on the anvil of bigotry by the hammer of hatred.

Set a century ago, ODDFELLOWS is powerfully contemporary, the echoes of the past robustly redolent of today, and vice versa.

Shakespeare’s shape of the story is sheer craftsmanship and the precision of his prose is a shimmering peak of imagination and imagery.

There’s irony aplenty in the fickleness and futility of human frailty. The title itself is awesomely ironic as Oddfellows pertains to a friendly society, a community of care, the lack of which as shown to the ostracised “other”, led to dire consequence.

“Untethered emotions, suspicions and latent jealousies, a history of fear overlaid with hate.”

Kudos to Nicholas Shakespeare for rescuing this strange and tragic event from the desert drifts of time and reinvigorating it at the oasis of remembrance.

ODDFELLOWS by Nicholas Shakespeare is published by Vintage. RRP 14.99.

For more about oddfellows, visit http://www.randomhouse.com.au

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