Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Like A Boss - Adam Rakunas

Like A Boss is the sequel to Adam Rakunas’ debut novel, Windswept, which I talked about rather positively last year.

We’re back with the inestimable Padma, now splitting her time between running the Old Windswept Distillery and cleaning out the city sewage system, trying to pay off some rather extensive property damage from the previous book. This is a somewhat wiser Padma though; she’s still just as angry, a pot perpetually on the boil, but there’s a sense of burgeoning self-knowledge there as well. Rather than the recruiter of Windswept, keen to make her quota and retire, there’s a more measured, reflective set of responses in Padma now. She’s running the distillery, a boss, and part of the rum-and-cane co-op which seems to server Windswept as a proto-governing body. But she’s working at being a good boss, working on dealing with people as people.

This self-discovery continues throughout the text. Padma isn’t just one thing, which is fantastic – she’s not a heroine, or a misanthrope. An arse-kicker or a thinker. An idol or its shattered remains. She’s all of those things, a multifaceted presence, whose weariness pours off the page around a white-hot core of anger and ideals.  She may not be perfect, but that rather feels like the point. Padma is an ordinary, if damaged, person, reacting as people do, and trying to make the best of her life. Whether that includes making it better for anyone around her is a matter for debate.

I rather liked Padma in Windswept, and it’s great to see more of her here, and see the gradual, organic-feeling shifts in character over the narrative. That she’s highly skilled (but makes mistakes) and acerbic, but mostly doing her best - this sort of well portrayed complexity means that she’s a pleasure to read about. It would have been nice to have a closer view of the supporting cast – there’s a more disparate group than last time, and perhaps a loss of intimacy, compared to the relationships from the first text. This is counterbalanced in some ways by the tighter focus on Padma - it would, however, be great to see more of the supporting cast in any later books.

The world – well, we saw rather a lot of Windswept before. There’s some changes here, in a town kept alive by corporate need. After the events of the last novel, the town is having to cope with the fallout. It feels a bit smaller, and perhaps because of that, a bit more intimate. There’s an intriguing dialogue going on between the folk in the city, processing cane, turning it into rum, and so on – and the dwellers in the kampong, those who cut the cane and deliver it. You can feel the social forces in conflict, trying to find a divide or common ground. It’s a subtle undercurrent in a lot of the dialogue between those two groups, and a division which informs their actions as much as that between the folk of the town and those still inside the corporate enclave.

Then there’s the divide between the Union bosses and their cohorts in the city. A sense that the union is bifurcated, that it’s becoming more, for want of a better word, corporate, also pervades the text. Padma sits in the middle, moved into the organising committees  alongside her distillery ownership, but come from nothing, and still unclogging a lot of rather clogged piping. The unspoken issue of how the union is run, what it’s for, and why that matters, crackles through the page. It’s engaging stuff, approaching complex issues with humour and a refusal to look away from both the bad and the good.  To be fair, as with the country and city division, this one is mostly in the subtext, but it did keep me interested, and keep me thinking, which was fantastic.

The plot – well, no spoilers here. But Padma’s retirement is, to put it mildly, nowhere near as comfortable as she assumes. There’s an intriguing array of crosses – double, and possibly even triple. Occasionally I had to re-read bits to make sure I was correct about what was going on, and, critically, why it was happening. But having said that, the political intrigue carries an appropriately lethal level of skulduggery, and there’s some beautiful set pieces, from the action-packed to moments of wonderfully tense emotional vulnerability. The story ramps the stakes up gradually, but never seems to stop doing so – and ties the grander global game with a more personal struggle for Padma in a way which makes for an eminently enjoyable read.

Is it worth reading? As a follow up to Windswept, I’d say yes – if you missed Padma especially. It’s a cracking read, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Padma and Rakunas  take us next.

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