#RivetingReviews: Paul Burke reviews DOWN WITH THE POOR! by Shumona Sinha

Contrary to expectations that the politically charged title of this book might be the latest rallying cry of Britain’s new Conservative government, this novel has a much wider scope. This is an exploration of the way institutions bend the individual to certain ways of thinking – how we appear to be living in an increasingly Kafkaesque world. Sinha’s particular concern is immigration and its impact on Europe – a deeply polarising issue. So what lies behind the rhetoric and political posturing, and how does that reflect on our society and its values?

Down With the Poor – the title from a quote from a poem by Baudelaire – reflects on the personal stories of refugees caught up in a bureaucratic system that lacks compassion, strips away empathy, crushes the spirit and is often punitive; the Rwanda policy being a case in point. The arguments here are nuanced though: the system brings out the worst in people, but no one is innocent, not even the refugees, and we are all prone to prejudice and closed rather than open minds. Thus, the system scars not only the people who seek its help, but also the border guards, the immigration officers, even the translators who work for it. These people become inured to the desperation of the refugees, failing to recognise the trauma piled on trauma by the investigations the system demands are carried out. The novel questions how and why, in the western imagination, people seeking a better life are seen as pariahs simply because of their attempts to do so. Why are people with hopes and dreams so feared when migration has been the way of the world from earliest times?

The novel follows a young woman who is in a cell after striking a refugee on the head with a bottle. She is contemplating what brought her to that act of violence. She she comes from an immigrant background herself, a woman of colour – as was the man she attacked. She is forced to confront her attitudes towards race and identity. As an interpreter for the immigration service her job was to translate for people from her former homeland, supposedly to help them. Where did her anger come from? How can she think of refugees as, ‘those people who swarmed the seas like repellent jellyfish and heaved themselves up onto foreign shores’. The use of ‘up’ signifies coming from a lower place, the legacy of colonial attitudes that underpins the system and defines the narrative. 

What emerges during her interrogation by one Monsieur K are complex feelings. Hers is not simply a hatred of refugees but the erosion of her empathy by the system’s scepticism and cynicism.

Down With the Poor deals with huge themes – exile, the nature of bureaucracy, exclusion and othering, racism and misogyny, victim-blaming and the failure to hold people traffickers to account. It’s a novel of counterpoints that makes you doubt what you think you know. Every individual story is open to interpretation. A mother holding a baby in an interview elicits sympathy or is seen as dishonestly tugging on the heartstrings, depending on your mindset. 

This is an exposé of the deeply troubling and corrosive effect of the system on the individual, how a dystopian world has been instituted and how we all seem ready to fall in line with it. More empathy, more open-mindedness and more listening might make for a better world.

Reviewed by Paul Burke


By Shumona Sinha 

Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

Published by Les Fugitives (2022)

September 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Paul Burke writes reviews, interviews, articles and features for crimefictionlover.com and crimetime.co.uk. He is editor and presenter of the Crime Time FM podcast and is a judge for the CWA Historical Dagger. Paul is a book collector, lover of literature in translation and a crime fiction aficionado.

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of EASTBOUND by Maylis de Kerangal

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of TASTING SUNLIGHT by Ewald Arenz

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of THE CHILD WHO by Jeanne Benameur

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of ROSE ROYAL: A LOVE STORY by Nicolas Mathieu

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of QUAKE by Auður Jónsdóttir

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of KAPO by Aleksandar Tišma

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of IT’S GETTING DARK: STORIES by Peter Stamm

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of MR K RELEASED by Matei Visniec

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of THE ANTARCTICA OF LOVE by Sara Stridsberg

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of SUNDAY IN VILLE-D’AVRAY by Dominique Barbéris

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of DISQUIET by Zülfü Livaneli

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of KAROLINA, OR THE TORN CURTAIN by Maryla Szymiczkowa

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of ONE LAST TIME by Helga Flatland

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of THE YEAR OF OUR LOVE by Caterina Bonvicini

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of ABOVE THE RAIN by Víctor del Árbola

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of MY BROTHER THE MESSIAH by Martin Vopenka

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of MY BROTHER by Karin Smirnoff

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of KOKOSCHKA’S DOLL by Afonso Cruz

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of THE LAST LIBERTINES by Benedetta Craveri

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of VERNON SUBUTEX III by Virginie Despentes

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of ELLY by Maike Wetzel

Read Paul Burke’s #Riveting Review of SUMMER LIGHT, AND THEN CAME THE NIGHT by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Category: September 2022Reviews


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *