As the global migrant crisis has escalated, our fiction has responded in kind, from Mohsin Hamid’s fantastical “Exit West” to Oscar Cásares’ spare “Where We Come From” to Jeanine Cummins’ controversial “American Dirt.” The Booker Prize-winning writer Aravind Adiga brings fresh urgency to the issue in his searing, inventive “Amnesty,” a tale of an undocumented young Sri Lankan adrift in Sydney, Australia.
“Amnesty” unfolds over a single summer day. Dhananjaya “Danny” Rajaratnam squats in a storeroom above a grocery store, where he does odd jobs for his Greek landlord; a Tamil, he’s illegally fled his native country’s murderous ethnic conflict. He has a girlfriend, a Vietnamese-Australian nurse. His income largely derives from his work as a freelance cleaner, armed with a vacuum that resembles an astronaut’s backpack. For four years he’s hidden in the shadows, building a life for himself and pining for asylum.
As the novel opens, Danny discovers that a former client, Radha Thomas, or House Number Five, has been murdered near a creek. Her husband is distraught. Danny suspects House Number Six — Prakash Wadhwa, an affluent Indian-Australian — as the killer; both compulsive gamblers, Prakash and Radha have been carrying on a tumultuous affair. Danny must confront a crushing moral question: Should he tip off Sydney investigators, risking deportation to Sri Lanka?
Danny’s suspicions trigger an odyssey through a city that imposes multiple identities on him: “Easiest thing in the world, becoming invisible to white people, who don’t see you anyway, but the hardest thing is becoming invisible to brown people. … Since they must see me, Danny thought, let me be seen this way — not as a scared illegal with furtive eyes but as a native son of Sydney, a man with golden highlights, with that erect back, that subtle indifference in every cell of his body.”
As Adiga gradually reveals, Danny knows far more about the murder as well as the nuances of the couple’s relationship. The author structures “Amnesty” as a literary thriller, tracing Danny’s movements hour by hour and, through a series of chilling phone calls with Prakash, nods to “Ulysses” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Adiga brings us deeper into Danny’s fever dream, with strings of recurring motifs — a potted cactus; a Coca-Cola sign; a motivational speaker; the theme song to “Mission: Impossible 2” — and layers of ravishing prose, as when Danny notices an infant in a pram: “The baby glanced at Danny: and the eye that regarded him was as hard, cloudy and blue as a Sri Lankan street marble.”
With the approach of evening Danny makes a fateful decision, but he does so with conviction: “A man without rights in this world is still entitled to love.” “Amnesty” is Adiga’s most accomplished novel yet, a gorgeously crafted page-turner with brains and heart, illuminating the courage of displaced peoples and the cruelties of those who conspire against them.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing,” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Aravind Adiga.
Publisher: Scribner, 256 pages, $26.