SL Lim confronts the reader with some of the fissures in our society, but does not make the mistake of offering facile solutions.
SL Lim. Image supplied by publisher Transit Lounge.
In Real Differences, SL Lim has written an aptly titled novel that, except for a brief excursion to Indonesia, takes place in contemporary Sydney. Some novels are written purely for the entertainment of the reader; others bear a message as well. Real Differences is in the latter category and, as the title suggests, it examines diversity among middle-class Australians. What may prompt young people to convert to Islam and accept the teachings of the Quran? What about the kind of racism that is not overt, and which is yet manifest in the conduct of people who would be shocked to be accused of any racial bias?
In order to examine the range of opinions people have on these kinds of issues, Lim has created a group of characters with diverse backgrounds. These include the narrator of much of the story, Nick, who morphs from a young idealist into a comfortable middle-class man, working as a university economics lecturer. There is Nick’s friend, Andie, who was born in Sydney to Indonesian Chinese migrants and is especially sensitive to any hint of racism. There’s Andie’s husband, Ben, who is ‘about as pro-establishment as you can be while studying Arts at university’. And then there’s Tony, an intelligent teenager, who is the victim of an overbearing mother. Growing into manhood, he comes to believe that Islam is more than just a religion but is rather a whole system, a whole methodology for life. And that it is what he thinks he needs.
Lim uses the interactions of her characters – partly through dialogue, partly through how they describe what they think and feel – to evoke different points of view on her chosen subjects. For instance, after a sheikh gives a lecture to a group of students, urging them to read the Quran, he is confronted by a young woman who says, ‘there are verses of the Quran . . . which say the proper punishment for adultery is stoning’. The sheik’s answer and the ensuing discussion are illuminating.
Much of the novel is devoted to exploring friendships between people with different backgrounds and with different opinions on important issues. The novel also illuminates the diverse approaches the younger generation take to Islam, including a range of attitudes toward ritual, and how some people change their attitudes over time. There is a telling episode in which a young Tony seeks advice from an older man. It illustrates how difficult it can be to bridge the age gap, and shows that it is even harder to bridge the gap between one set of beliefs and another.
This is not a fast-paced novel, but it does not need to be. It still has its dramatic moments and holds the reader’s interest. Lim confronts the reader with some of the fissures in our society, but does not make the mistake of offering facile solutions, instead suggesting there are people who can transcend their differences. If those characters too often come across as mouthpieces for specific views rather than as fully three-dimensional people, these views are at least interesting and well conveyed.
3.5 stars out of 5 ★★★☆
Real Differences by SL Lim
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Format: Trade paperback
Release Date: 1 June 2019