Thank you to all who came to bookclub for what turned out to be an impassioned and thought-provoking week of discussion.
To a person, all of book club found No Friend But The Mountains to be a difficult read, but for varying reasons. Some were not fans of Boochani, and found him to be aggressive and embittered. Others were put off by the poetry and prose, and found reading this book a slog. Most, however, were simply left feeling hollowed out by the oppressive culture of 'Manus Prison', and man's inhumanity to man. Almost all book clubbers, regardless of their feelings about Boochani and/or his book, felt that politics aside, the conditions in Manus as described in No Friend But The Mountains were inhumane, and not at all how our government should be treating people.
A lot of readers approached this book with dread and trepidation, worried the contents would be too disturbing. Many abandoned reading half way through, either because they found the subject to be too much (all that toilet talk!) or the writing to be too arduous. However, many others found Boochani's prose to be beautiful, and were deeply moved by the poetic nature of his writing. As one reader put it, ‘He has made poetry out of an ugly thing’.
We discussed the writing of the book, and while many found the prose to be very repetitive, they felt this reflected the day to day monotony of life in 'Manus Prison', and surmised that it may be due to the fact that Boochani did not have a record of what he had already written. The passage of time was diluted in Boochani's work, and though we were often confounded by the sequence of events, most agreed this did not detract too much from the reading.
Along with the chapter in which Boochani is on the prison roof, the author's stories about characters such as The Cow, The Whore, The Prime Minister, and The Gentle Giant stood out to many readers as their favorite parts of the book. An important part of the story is the way Boochani places himself in the narrative, and though we didn't all agree many readers felt Boochani wasn’t a victim and that he didn’t victimise himself. We talked about the author's role as an observer. We thought that his creative mind must play a large role in helping him endure his days on Manus. Opinions on Boochani's feelings of others in the system varied - some found him far too harsh, and others found him merely descriptive. For the most part, we agreed that no matter the conditions, living in close quarters with so many others would be difficult to say the least.
The Kyriarchal system sparked a lot of talk amongst the groups, and we explored issues of carceral control and the ways in which all the people, officers and refugees alike, were affected by it. We drew a lot of comparisons between Manus and on-shore prisons, and many expressed outrage that our prisons contain real criminals who are treated with much more humanity than those on Manus, who have not been convicted of any crime (it was pointed out, many times, that seeking refuge is not illegal).
We discussed refugees around the world, and lamented that this is a global issue that is only going to worsen. Time and again, groups came to the conclusion that the question of how to deal with refugees was an incredibly complex one with no easy answers, as borne out by the mixed results of the various policy settings that have been applied here and around the world. We talked about refugees in Europe and the Middle East, and and the reasons as to why people might come by boat rather than go through the proper channels to seek refuge. Many shared refugee stories involving family and friends - a handful even knew or had heard directly from people who had worked on Manus or Nauru.
While some readers felt that this book was just one man's perspective, and that it gave a skewed view of Australia and its role in the refugee crisis, most readers found that this book, and books like it, are important and necessary if only for the fact that they open us up to having difficult conversations and to bring these issues to light. Many readers found that reading this book gave them the impetus to explore the issues more deeply, to do their own research and to bring the conversation to their friends and family.
Emotional responses to this book spanned the spectrum from anger, to shame, to helplessness, to a sense of being partly responsible, and finally, to a feeling of being immensely grateful for all that we have in our lives.
See you next month!
Vicky, Britt, Laura, Chloe and the Riverbend Team