*Slight spoilers below*
Exiles is not a recent book by any means. Published in 1988 there's the danger that ideas strong and painful then can be irrevocably diluted by the hands of time. I don't get the sense that's the case here though. The novel deals with exiles of all varieties and past conflicts that echo grimly with the perils of life in 2010. As a reader currently entrenched in Victorian fiction it was a stark alteration in my reading habits.
I have to say, though, that while one selling tool of the book worked really well, another didn't. While browsing Inpress, a collection of independent publishers online, I saw a very intriguing cover and clicked into it. Even looking online covers are vitally important tools! But the blurb felt a little lacking. Still, I bought it, hopeful the book would exceed my expectations. And it did. I soon discovered the blurb didn't do the novel justice. It was much more than it said on the tin. I know that's a symptom of blurbs in general but in this case I found it acutely problematic and I hope it hasn't put people off buying the book in the past.
Is the novel, as the brief description on the cover suggests, solely about Tunisia and Geologist Claire's dalliance with a man named Ali while her partner, John, waits for her in London? No. It's only an aspect of a very complex whole.
The entire ensemble of characters are dealing with exiles of their own, most of them inflicted rather than self-imposed. Irish living in London, dealing with the stigma of their homecountry; a geologist stuck in the heat of Tunisia struck with the loneliness of her situation. It's difficult to form absolute opinions on anything when, as a reader, you're constantly seeing the flip side of the action.
Is it better for a potential killer to die before he inflicts harm? Are innocent people just necessary casualities of a larger conflict? The parallels with current worldwide terrorism are difficult to ignore.
This novel teems with issues contemporary twenty years ago. Bell skillfully weaves the personal lives of her characters with the wider picture and invokes the Tunisian setting effectively. Relationships are transitory but the surrounding conflicts, particularly the Irish troubles, most definitely aren't.
The book isn't a light read and in some places is a little graphic, both sexually and violently. Two images stayed with me afterwards: the moment when a cat gets caught under the tyres of a van and, perhaps more positively, the scene of locals in deprived areas sharing their last pieces of food with the geologists.
A novel for our times as well as the Thatcher-soaked times of the past.
Exiles is published by Parthian Books and is avaiable from their website for £5.99 plus P&P.