The narrative of Drive-By Saviours alternates between Mark McCloud, a social worker living in Toronto, and Bumi, a brilliant young boy from a fishing village in Indonesia living under the repressive Suharto regime. While Mark's lifelong goal is to help people, social working does not give him the hands-on work he craves. He lives with his partner, Sarah, who works as a model, and it would seem that he has everything to make him happy.
On the other side of the world, Bumi is given a unique opportunity to leave his tiny fishing island and go to school in a larger urban centre as part of a government initiative, escaping his regular beatings from his alcoholic father. But life is not easy for Bumi as a poor outsider, and he grows into a young man with series of nervous ticks and strange rituals that make onlookers uneasy. Bumi's strange behaviour eventually results in his being suspected of a series of heinous crimes, forcing him to flee Indonesia and live illegally in Toronto, where he eventually meets Mark. Through their budding friendship, Mark recognizes Bumi's obsessive compulsive disorder and is finally able to give someone hands-on assistance. Bumi's disorder also reminds him of some strange quirks his estranged sister Michelle showed as a child. He attempts to re-establish contact with her so that he might help her too.
The Bumi component of the story, particularly of his childhood and teenage years in Indonesia, was pure escapism, the reason we pick up a book in the first place. Author Chris Benjamin beautifully captures all of the delicious details of obsessive compulsive disorder. I was less keen on Mark's character, not because he wasn't well done, but because he reminded me of so many people today--those who appear to have everything on the outside, but still seem dissatisfied with their lives. And this may have well been the entire message of the book--the things that make us money are usually not what make us happy.
This was an ambitious first book in which the author demonstrated his fine storytelling skills. Still, I wished that the author had focused more on Mark's childhood with his sister and his wonderfully dysfunctional family rather than on the protagonist's daily slog in Toronto. I would have also liked to have seen sister Michelle brought into the story a little earlier on, and maybe saved the compelling character of Lily for another book.
Overall this was a good read, and I think many people will readily identify with protagonist Mark McCloud. Chris Benjamin is a great writer whom we will certainly be hearing more of in the future.
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