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Sufferance by Charles Palliser

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

Occasionally, very occasionally, a novel comes along these days that is imbued with a sense of classic literature. Such is the case with Charles Palliser's latest novel, Sufferance. Palliser, an award-winning, bestselling author, has spent the last two decades in relative obscurity. It is not surprising, then, that many readers have never heard of him. The American-British author rose to fame in 1990 with his debut novel, The Quincunx, a literary mystery that sold more than a million copies. Sufferance is his sixth novel, and his first in ten years. In many ways, it may be his best work.

The novel is about the unnamed: an unidentified protagonist-narrator with nameless family members who take in an anonymous girl from a “protected” community in an unspecified country occupied by a foreign power. For those with a decent knowledge of the twentieth century, it does not take much effort to fill in the blanks, even if some incoherence remains. But that is the point. Palliser is not retelling history but lures readers into a space where they might wonder what they would have done if they had been faced with the dilemma of Palliser’s protagonist. Like much great literary fiction, this work is a journey into the human conscience, where empathy and antipathy collide when survival is at stake.

The plot is fairly straightforward and linear. The character development is not. After a brief but devastating invasion by a neighbouring authoritarian regime, the protagonist finds his defeated country divided into an occupied zone, where the capital is, and an unoccupied zone, where his city is. Communication and travel from one zone to the other is strictly forbidden. A collaborationist regime is installed, which gradually adopts the fascist policies of the invaders, especially in its treatment of minorities. When the protagonist, a low-level accountant, is told by his daughter that a classmate is stranded by her parents, who were in the capital when the invasion began and cannot return, he reacts with concern. When he also learns that the girl's father owns the city's most prestigious department store, he is further motivated by the prospect of a reward for taking her in until they return.

Petty is the word that best describes our protagonist. Manipulative is the word that best depicts his new charge. Much of the narrative brings into play the protagonist's ambitions to exploit the girl's situation for his material advancement, and the girl's own cunning to ensure her survival by playing off the members of her host family as the situation for members of the "protected" community becomes bleaker. Added to this is the unreliability of the protagonist's narrative. While his agenda to better himself through the gratitude of the girl's parents is clearly stated, the protagonist also ascribes a fair amount of altruism to himself and his family members. At times, the reader wavers between disdain and sympathy, disbelief and belief, as the slow-moving plot approaches its conclusion.

Had Sufferance stuck to the plot described above, it would have been a good read. But the novel goes far beyond that, and therein lies its brilliance. With a compelling cast of characters, it is in many ways a case study of what it is like to live under an occupation that turns the mundane into evil, one that feeds the greed of some and reduces others to complacent obedience. And the glimmer of resistance? Well, perhaps, just maybe, there are fleeting moments of it in the narrative, but then again, the story is told by an unreliable narrator. Distinguishing truth from self-serving rationalization is a difficult task, all the more so when Palliser throws in a final surprise.

Sufferance is published by Guernica Editions.


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