Before hitting the literary big time with her Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver penned a prescient satire about terrorism. As she writes in her author's note, the book didn't find a publisher in 1998 as "my American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as Foreigner's Boring Problem". Since then, both the author's sales and homeland horrors have escalated, and The New Republic finally saw the light of day last year.
The setting for Shriver's robust comedy is the fictional state of Barba. An arid spit of land attached to Portugal's southern borders, this obscure backwater has become home to a group of freedom fighters known as SOB – an extremist cell claiming responsibility for a string of nasty international incidents. Suddenly, Barba is on the map, and the world's media have gathered in its dusty capital, Cinzeiro, to await SOB's next atrocity.
Joining this coterie of hacks is the novel's fallible antihero, Edgar Kellogg. A Manhattan lawyer turned journalist, he is sent to Barba to replace Barrington Saddler, a legendary foreign correspondent who has gone missing in action.
From the first, Kellogg is made to feel he will never match up to his predecessor's "silo-sized" physique or reputation. Chafing against this role – and falling in love with Saddler's girl - Kellogg finds himself caught up in a complicated game with SOB as the novel's plot accelerates into high farce.
Shriver has described this satire in the manner of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop as "a boy-book written by a girl". And this might explain why the novel has so far met with such lukewarm reviews in some quarters.
Acerbic and funny, Shriver's telling psychological portraits of Barba's expat community expose the seamier corners of the male psyche. While it's true the British hacks in The New Republic speak a peculiar mockney, her pot-shots at both journalism and terrorism hit their targets. Poking fun at extremism can be a risky game, but Shriver is not a writer to duck the difficult questions.