Drive-By Saviours, the debut novel by Canadian author Chris Benjamin, tells the story of two men from very different backgrounds who meet one day on the subway in Toronto and form a friendship that changes both of their lives forever. One of these men is Bumi, an illegal immigrant from Indonesia, on the run from his troubled past. The other is Mark, a Canadian social worker who is growing increasingly disillusioned with his job. As they get to know each other, Mark learns that Bumi is suffering from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and decides to try to help him get the treatment he needs – and at the same time discovers that this new friendship could have important consequences for his own future.
The novel moves back and forth between Indonesia and Canada, with alternating chapters being told from first Bumi’s perspective, then Mark’s. Bumi’s chapters are in chronological order, whereas Mark’s are in the form of flashbacks and anecdotes. This might sound like a confusing structure, but the author handles the transitions very well and the story flows nicely.
This wasn’t a bad book by any means, but overall it didn’t quite work for me. Although I enjoyed the first half of the book, there were a few occasions during the second half where I started to lose interest in the story. And while I thought Bumi was a fascinating and sympathetic character, I felt less engaged with the chapters narrated by Mark. Maybe I just wasn’t the right reader for this book as most other reviews seem to be very positive.
However, there were some things I really liked about this book. First of all, I enjoyed the chapters set in Indonesia which described Bumi’s childhood on a small fishing island and the difficulties he experienced when he was sent to school in the city of Makassar as part of a government experiment. I know very little about Indonesia so it was nice to have the opportunity to learn something about the history, politics and culture of the country. I also found the portrayal of Bumi’s OCD very interesting to read about. The author spent a lot of time describing how Bumi’s obsessions originated and spiralled out of control, what the symptoms were, and how people reacted to his behaviour in a community where most people were uneducated and had a limited understanding of mental illness.
A lot of other interesting issues are touched on, including families being separated by immigration, the effects of tourism and progress on an island community, and life in Indonesia under President Suharto’s regime. But at the centre of the novel is the idea that two people who have grown up thousands of miles apart can discover a number of parallels in their lives and form a bond that transcends their cultural and personal differences.
I received a review copy of this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers