Eight years after the shocking events of September 11, Australia is rocked by the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Canberra, making the nation’s capital uninhabitable for hundred of thousands of years. The terrorists gave the city three days warning and, unless there were people who refused to evacuate and hid from the search teams, nobody was killed, but this first terrorist act of Australian soil was unquestionably a disaster. In the wake of the bomb Australia’s Prime Minister Bernard James, worthy successor to Liberal PM John Howard, introduced hardline laws restricting immigration, confining potential terrorists (ie all Muslims and other dissidents) in ghettos, mandatory identity cards, compulsory check points, and other concessions in the name of safety and freedom.
Two years later Leo James, failed entrepreneur and black-sheep twin of the PM, is standing in the only completed suite of his latest failure, a grandiose hotel complex in north Queensland, drunkenly celebrating the arrival of category five hurricane Yusuf – the insurance money is worth way more than the complex would otherwise get. When Leo finally realises the danger of the hurricane he starts to leave the hotel, but is kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men in a commandeered Australia Post van, though not before a piece of hurricane-thrown corrugated roofing decapitates one of the would-be kidnappers. Led by a burqa-clad woman, the gang are a branch of the Great Southern Jihad and she claims the GSJ set the Canberra bomb. She takes Leo on a drive to meet her bosses but, before they’ve gone any distance at all, the van is ambushed by Federal Police, who kill the men and strip the burqa off Aisha Fatima Islam, also known as Nancy Campbell, revealing a pale, almost albino woman. Uninterested in debriefing her, AFP officers are about to shoot her when they’re killed and Leo (and Aisha/Nancy) are taken captive again.
Only Leo discovers he’s not a captive – he’s been rescued by the Oz Underground, a group devoted to restoring Australia’s pre-bomb democracy, a group he’d always believed were apocryphal. Harry, the cell leader, tells Leo that the AFP would have killed him, too, and he proves it – the news announces that the body found on Leo’s construction site was his. Leo’s own twin wants him dead and, as PM, has the power to do it.
McGahan shines a spotlight on what’s wrong with Australia today, from the new ultra-nationalism to the loss of our sense of irreverence, and paints a grim picture of what could happen if we continue to blithely ignore the erosion of our rights and the rights of refugees and the dispossessed. His discussion about secularism failing to inoculate youth against radical religion is inspired and, like much of the book, really resonated with me.
I’m no fan of cricket but the whole description of an Australian-American match was fantastic, and little asides (like comparing the CIA observers to invading Romans – “Ah, but forgive me. It’s been illegal now for some years to compare America to the Roman Empire hasn’t it – by special act of Congress, indeed, ratified by the governments of every allied nation. A criminal offence. American cannot be anything like the Roman Empire, because the Roman Empire collapsed, and to suggest any sort of similar fate for the US is pure treason”) are inspired.
Underground is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – the pace is relentless, the plot is both terrifying and believable, it exemplifies what Australia is all about, it’s thoughtful and reflective, and it’s unexpectedly funny and pointed and just plain Australian; it really couldn’t have been written by an author of any other nation. I thoroughly enjoyed every word and was torn between racing through to see what happened next and lingering so the book wasn’t over any sooner than it had to be. This is genuinely great. Read it! - Alex