Refusal Shoes

by Tony Saint
ISBN: 1852427736

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A Review of: Refusal Shoes
by Tim McGrenere

The 2003 movie, Love, Actually, opens with a series of sugar-sweet soft-glow images of London's Heathrow Airport-all huggy and kissy reunions at the baggage carousels and Hugh Grant, in a breathless voiceover saying "love, actually is all around' Well, in Tony Saint's first novel, Refusal Shoes-a searing and brutally funny portrait of corrupt immigration officers at Heathrow-love isn't anywhere to be found. In fact, love has been refused entry and cannot even claim asylum.
Saint's book arrived with some controversy in England where it was published in 2003. An immigration officer himself, Saint was suspended from work when word of the book got out. He handed in his resignation shortly thereafter. The Home Office requested to see a proof to check that it didn't contravene the Official Secrets Act. They insisted that Saint make it clear at all times that it was 100% a work of fiction or, they threatened, they'd act against him. You can't pay for that kind of publicity.
Reading the book, it's easy to see why the Home Office was nervous. The "fictional" Terminal C is portrayed as one of the dark junctions of globalization hell, and Saint's vivid and assured writing pulls the reader into a kind of voyeuristic trance. We see the grey walls and the dark endless corridors of Heathrow and the indolent and nefarious members of the immigration service, each wearing clothes that, in a running joke, they "always wear". We feel the cold blast of the air conditioners working hard in November. We smell the stale coffee, stale cigarettes and stale booze, not to mention the human sweat in the overcrowded holding rooms. We hear the violent bangaboomabang of the passport stamps and the whirling of the arrival's board. And most of all we are privy to the intensely cynical backroom conversations of the immigration officers talking about "knocking off the duffers and scrotes."
Heathrow is not only a character in the novel; it becomes a symbol of the real tribal divisions that simmer beneath One-World Global Village pieties. In one memorable passage, the narrator describes in detail the hatreds between various nationalities and races. It begins with the more mundane hatred between Arabs and Jews-"Everybody knows that," intones the narrator, and proceeds to give an encyclopedic account of the various national hatreds, which achieves its frenzied climax in the following:

Albanians hate Serbs, who hate Turks, who hate Russians, who hate Croats, who hate Greeks, who hate Macedonians, who hate Albanians. Norwegians hate Swedes. Really. Belgians hate each other. People from Portsmouth hate people from Southampton. In the real world, hatred is the only thing we do have in common.
And the Immigration Service runs on it. It is character building when it comes to this kind of work; it is positively encouraged. It is a natural resource, available in abundance and self-generatingThe art of the [immigration officers] is to take that hatred and focus and redistribute it on the arriving passengers.

Clearly, Saint is not dipping us in Hollywood sentimentality. His book is often claustrophobic with hatred. Like the novel's immigration officer protagonist, Henry Brinks, the reader feels trapped by that hatred. Although we may be compelled by the truth of Saint's portrayal, at the book's halfway point our only desire, like that of Henry Brinks, is to escape Heathrow.
Saint manages to make the reader sympathetic to Brink's situation even though he spends little time developing his character or giving the reader information about Brink's life outside Heathrow. And to a great extent this narrow focus is justified; Brinks is a man whose character, whose soul, has been crushed by Terminal C. He has been de-sensitized and de-humanized by his work. At the beginning of the novel we see a passive and ignoble near-drone whose entire personality is summed up by the mantra of Terminal C: "Cover your back." He is pathetic. But when Brinks is threatened by the most corrupt immigration officer of all, a spark of character is reignited and he attempts to overcome his own passivity and the "raw, almost unbearable cruelty" that is Heathrow. Brinks does inspire compassion. Clearly, he is caught between two extreme perspectives on the would-be immigrants he deals with. He does not share the cruel racism of his fellow officers, who believe every refugee is a fraud come to live on the dole; nor can he side with the liberals who believe that every single person who claims asylum is instantly entitled to it. Brinks has seen too many frauds, but again, not enough to justify such cynical exercises of power as the semi-official competition between immigration officers for most "knock-offs" in a year and the practice of refusing entry based on the type of shoes a passenger is wearing.
There is a thriller aspect to the story, and while the plot has its charms and a satisfying conclusion, it definitely takes second place to Saint's clinical dissection of Heathrow's Kafkaesque horrors. That, and Saint's deft comic sensibility, makes for a truly gripping read. If you liked Love, Actually and want to hold on to its syrupy Heathrow dreamscape then stay away from this book. But if what you're after is a lifelike account of one volatile intersection point of today's globalized movement of people, then grab this book. You'll never pass through airport customs with inappropriate footwear again.

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