Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 28 Jul 2020 in Fiction |

SL LIM Real Differences. Reviewed by Ann Skea

Tags: / / / / / / /

SL Lim’s debut won this year’s UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and explores questions of race, religion and culture.

Nick, who tells this story, is a rather disengaged white Australian man who, as he tells us, ‘graduated from high school with all the trimmings’ and, while at university, became close friends with Andie, the daughter of Indonesian-Chinese refugees. Nick describes her as ‘not a perfect person’, but one who, when she ‘had an idea what was right’, would make ‘no distinction between thought and action’. She assumed that everyone else did the same. Nick did not share this idealistic view and they did not talk about ideas or ‘what to do right in the world’, but they became best friends and shared a flat together. Then Andie got a ‘proper’ boyfriend, moved out, and married him. ‘We were friends,’ Nick says,

… then she was gone and I drifted, then she came back and told me things and I wrote them down before her final disappearance. And now she’s gone for good and here I am putting words in order … curating these events for a beginning and end, conflict and catharsis and all the rest. Pimping out my own trauma for effect. So you must keep an eye on me, you must not let me get away with anything.

 In Nick’s account, we jump back in time as he remembers the way events unfolded, and he allows each character to express their own way of seeing the world. We hear their thoughts and ambitions, and come to understand their feelings as well as their doubts and certainties.

Andie works for a group called Real Difference, which, through ‘work on the ground, review and research’, seeks to identify ethically sound charities and persuade donors to support them. She is determined to make a difference to the lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged people, and she is obsessive about promoting this ambition. As part of her work, Andie travels to Indonesia, sees the sort of world her parents left, and experiences very different standards and ways of living to what she has grown up to expect in Australia.

Benjamin, Andie’s husband, comes from an old, affluent, well-established Anglo-Australian family and makes the comfortable, unquestioning assumption that everyone is basically decent. He is patient, trusting and ‘nice’, but he also believes that whites are superior to ‘ethnics’ who, ‘if properly trained’, could become part of mainstream society. In this process, Andie, ‘through deft sleight of mind, was expropriated from her skin and thus excluded from this category’. She, of course, resents this view, and is offended by the casual, unintentional racism that Ben’s friends sometimes demonstrate and that he declines to challenge. This, along with Andie’s idealistic beliefs, eventually causes them to part.

In Nick, Andie and Benjamin, Lim lays out common patterns of differences and conflict, but her most troubled and disturbing character is Andie’s young cousin, Tony. His parents, who ten years earlier had lost their home and livelihood in anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia, devote their lives to him but constantly pressure him to study hard, and get angry if he does not live up to their expectations. Nick, at Andie’s request, first meets Tony at a school debating competition, where he excels. But he is troubled and cannot decide what to do with his future or how to respond to the pressure of his parents’ demands. He is also critical of the casual way they call themselves Catholic but treat their religion ‘like buying lotto tickets – they pray just in case it might help them win’.

Two years after Nick first meets him, 16-year-old Tony discovers Islam through a Bangladeshi classmate who is also a member of the debating team. Hasan is an active and charismatic Muslim and organises a group of Muslim boys who meet for lunchtime prayer. ‘The rest of the school mostly regarded them as harmless curiosities’ and their classmates would ‘form a united wall of derision and contempt’ for the few students who expressed racist views about ‘migration and immigration’. Nick, with his habitual wry cynicism, judges that:

It wasn’t that the children themselves were especially socially conscious – although most, being the offspring of migrants themselves, were fairly receptive to concepts of tolerance and multiculturalism. Rather they felt that such words were unfitting for the atmosphere of intellectual refinement which ought to prevail at Eastern Boys’ Selective High School.

Hasan befriends Tony and listens to his problems with his parents, and Tony comes to admire the way Hasan’s certainties about his faith ‘take precedence over everything else’. So, Tony agrees to attend a talk organised by Hasan’s Islamic Society, and there he hears an ‘elder’ American convert, Sheikh Walid Wasseem, talk about Islam and the Quran ‘as a guide for all human endeavour’. Tony is so moved by the talk that he goes home and spends ‘feverish hours’ searching the internet:

… endlessly trawling the same forums and websites and groups, trying to recreate the feeling of shocked illumination he had experienced in the hall… Becoming a believer after sixteen years which were functionally if not nominally godless, changed everything for Tony.

It is Tony’s conversion (reversion) to Islam that provides much of the religious theme in Nick’s story. Tony buys a copy of the Quran, reads it constantly, and carries it everywhere with him. He changes his diet (his mother is initially furious), and begins to pray daily. Hasan goes overseas for a while and they lose contact, so in his first days at university Tony joins the Islamic Society ISOC. As a revert, he finds that there are so many small rules he must learn about such things as how to hold himself when he prays, and how to ensure his prayers are valid, that those who have grown up in Muslim families constantly correct him. It is all much less satisfying than he had hoped. He does, however, meet Katherine, a white Australian and very committed convert, with whom he discusses their faith. He admires the fact that ‘her faith was utterly solid’:

There was nothing metaphorical or vaporous about it. She had no fear of death: she was convinced she would be greeted by two angels who would roll back the grassy blanket of the grave and ask her questions to which she had prepared lifelong answers.

And it is the alliance between Tony and Katherine that finally brings about the climax of the book.

Lim immerses the reader in the thoughts and actions of her characters, so it is easy to forget that Nick is telling this story. But although he loses his highly paid job and becomes apathetic and depressed, he still manages to present the beliefs that govern the lives of Tony and Katherine, and Andie and Ben, impartially. And although Nick is the only character who does not have such strong beliefs (which makes him, he agrees, ‘a boring person’), he still manages to show realistically how they each consider and reject alternative ways of viewing the world and of living their lives. And the complexity of living by their beliefs is played out in a culture that is essentially agnostic and pays lip-service to tolerance but rarely examines its own beliefs.

Real Differences is Lim’s first novel and her characters grapple with the serious and emotive questions of race, religion and culture. For them, and for their creator, this is a difficult and ambitious process. At times the exposition of beliefs, especially those of Tony and Andie, hinders the smooth flow of the narrative, but Lim draws the reader into her story, and she does capture the ambitions, ideals, dreams and energy of a generation growing up in a world of change and uncertainty. Andie, unlike Tony, questions whether it is ‘compulsory to be so flagrant about [your beliefs], refusing to compromise even one hair’s breadth of your position’. But for Andie, and especially for Tony, ‘integrity is the ability to wear the same face with all the people in one’s life’.

In the end, the reader is left with questions about their own cultural assumptions and an awareness of the challenges of peacefully absorbing different beliefs within that culture.

SL Lim Real Differences Transit Lounge Publishing 2020 PB 288pp $29.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (// are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Real Differences from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.