Ostracized as a kid, Edgar Kellogg has always yearned to be popular. A disgruntled New York corporate lawyer, he's more than ready to leave his lucrative career for the excitement and uncertainty of journalism. When he's offered the post of foreign correspondent in a Portuguese backwater that has sprouted a homegrown terrorist movement, Edgar recognizes the disappeared larger-than-life reporter he's been sent to replace, Barrington Saddler, as exactly the outsize character he longs to emulate. Infuriatingly, all his fellow journalists cannot stop talking about their beloved "Bear," who is no longer lighting up their work lives.
Yet all is not as it appears. Os Soldados Ousados de Barba—"The Daring Soldiers of Barba"—have been blowing up the rest of the world for years in order to win independence for a province so dismal, backward, and windblown that you couldn't give the rat hole away. So why, with Barrington vanished, do terrorist incidents claimed by the "SOB" suddenly dry up?
A droll, playful novel, The New Republic addresses weighty issues like terrorism with the deft, tongue-in-cheek touch that is vintage Shriver. It also presses the more intimate question: What makes particular people so magnetic, while the rest of us inspire a shrug? What's their secret? And in the end, who has the better life—the admired, or the admirer?
In The New Republic by Lionel Shriver novice journalist/ex-lawyer Edgar Kellogg is offered the temporary post of foreign correspondent for the National Record. His post is in Barba, a fictional part of Portugal, where his assignment is two fold: report on the terrorist activities of the SOB (Os Soldados Ousados de Barba) and find out what happened to enigmatic, charismatic, and missing reporter Barrington Saddler.
When he arrives in Barba, it is apparent that Barrington is exactly the kind of man that Edgar has always envied. Edgar has been asking himself for years why some people are simply more magnetic and irresistible to others. It is clear, talking to Barrington's friends and acquaintances in Barba, that their beloved "Bear" is one of those larger-than-life characters. It is puzzling, though, that terrorist activity has stopped in Barba now that Barrington is missing.
The New Republic was originally written in 1998, but publication was held off because of the terrorism in the novel. As Shriver writes in the Author's Note: "[In 1998] my American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as Foreigners’ Boring Problem and I was unable to interest an American publisher in the manuscript." Then, post 9/11, she felt that any novel which treated terrorism “with a light touch” would have been “in poor taste.” She is hoping that the novel "can now see print without giving offense." In the end, though, it is the age of the novel combined with its light touch and unlikable characters that combine to create a novel that I struggled to enjoy.
First let me make it clear that I appreciate/lionize Lionel Shriver's writing. She deftly always uses the perfect word in every sentence. Her vocabulary is beyond my comprehension. And she is clever. Very clever. All these traits were present in The New Republic. The problem is not with her writing. It's not with the terrorism either. The problem, for me, was found in the sluggish middle of the book, the dated feeling to the novel (with all the reporters working for print publications), and, most especially, in the unlikable characters.
However, questioning the role of journalists is probably more cutting edge than the terrorism and it's too bad Shriver didn't rewrite this novel in order to aim her sharp satire at current journalists, all in a frenzy, following the scent of the day.
If you make it to the end of The New Republic it will redeem itself for the niggling problems it also contains.
Recommended, Highly Recommended for fans of Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver's novels include the National Book Award finalist So Much for That, the New York Times bestseller The Post-Birthday World, and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her journalism has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She lives in London and Brooklyn, New York.
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC for review purposes.