Review: Nore Hoogstad's Gunfire Lullabies is a fictionalised account of a diplomat's year in East Timor

Fires on the streets of Dili, as a local East Timorese boy runs by, September 1999. Picture: Getty Images
Fires on the streets of Dili, as a local East Timorese boy runs by, September 1999. Picture: Getty Images
  • Gunfire Lullabies, by Nore Hoogstad. $34.25.

Writing is a form of therapy, Graham Greene once mused, a means to "escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation".

There feels like a lot of writing as therapy in Nore Hoogstad's novel that draws expansively upon her time as a diplomat at the Australian embassy in Jakarta and at the time of East Timor's independence referendum in 1999.

The book comprises two intertwining stories. The first is about Ava Vuyk, junior diplomatic go-getter with a marriage on the rocks who assumes the embassy's East Timor brief. The second is centred on Isabel Cardoso, a young East Timorese woman captured by the pro-Indonesia militia and made to live with them as a slave. Their two stories connect in a surprising and poignant manner near the end.

Many of the East Timorese characters in the book are papery pseudonyms. Alexio, the resistance leader imprisoned in a Jakarta jail, is Xanana Gusmao, depicted as committed, extremely charismatic and little bit handsy. The militia leader who takes Isobel as his personal fief is modelled on Eurico Guterres, a man indicted for crimes against humanity and, in a dark irony, recent recipient of one of the Indonesian state's highest honours for his "distinguished service".

Presumably the same approach to thinly veiled portraiture applies elsewhere. Sleuthing the possible identities of the novel's diplomats, defence officials and others will be catnip for Canberra insiders. Many of the individual characters emerge poorly. It's hard to know how much that is rendered on the page is fact, fiction or reparative score-settling. The author portrays the ambassador as a thin-skinned, Latin-spouting chauvinist with an ego the size of the Jakarta metropolitan area. A quick Google search will settle any questions as to who "Adam Stretton", the high-handed Australian Foreign Minister, might be modelled on.

The novel flays the foibles, pomposities and value systems of public servants abroad. Greene - a writer of unstinting honesty himself - would have approved at seeing these motivations laid bare. Much time is taken up harrumphing over petty slights, obsessing over status, and anguishing over promotions. A shouting match between senior diplomats about an internal performance appraisal is mentioned three times! The novel's denouement involves a hardly life-or-death decision over taking a desk job in Canberra. Even though Ava bridles at the system, she remains in thrall to its baubles to the end.

The book may also constitute a therapeutic opportunity for Hoogstad to get a few things off her chest, including reflecting on some of the characters encountered during her posting. Ava has a relationship with a United Nations panjandrum from New York who is unable to work out whether he should stay with Ava or slink back to his wife. Her account of meeting pontifical activists in Dili is well done and presumably satisfying to write.

It's also an unflinchingly honest account of the difficulties of being a young woman in a cloistered man's world. Ava is humiliated and degraded as a "bimbo" in front of her embassy colleagues amidst a boisterous leaving speech. As Ava flees, the roly-poly defence officer she thought had been her platonic pal makes a ham-fisted and pathetic protestation of his ardour. It's one of the rawest, most viscerally upsetting pieces of prose I've ever read.

But sometimes the writing can be clunky and word choices hackneyed. Some descriptions, like of East Timor being "a land imbued with ancient power, the people bred from the fierce reptilian blood of their ancient relative, the crocodile" reads like something drafted by a bureaucrat hankering for a side hustle as a travel writer.

At the same time, Hoogstad handles certain scenes with aplomb that immobilise seasoned writers. She writes well about sex, both tender and forced. The build-up and climax to Ava's international relations with the Hamlet of the Hudson River is stirring in all senses of the word.

Should those less animated by Canberra parlour games read the book also? Very much so. It's an absorbing and well-told tale. Short chapters propel the narrative to its bleak conclusion, which hews closely to how events played out in real life. The prose is reminiscent of Judy Nunn, another writer who places roiling personal stories against the backdrop of historical events.

The book refocuses attention on a period of history - the East Timor referendum - fading from view. This was a time when Australia eventually did the right thing by its northern neighbour. Even a fictionalised account is revealing of the machinations at play.

Gunfire Lullabies is a worthy addition to the small shelf of titles written by protagonists and onlookers to the rebirth of this proud and resilient nation.

This story Living dangerously in East Timor first appeared on The Canberra Times.