Book review: God Forgets About the Poor, Peter Polites

A sympathetic tale of one migrant’s experience.

The latest census shows that about 70% of people living in Australia were born here. Apart from our First Peoples, the large majority of those men and women will never be compelled to learn another language or adapt to a strange new culture; they will never know how it feels to want to live both here and there. God Forgets About the Poor, however, gifts such people with an imaginative understanding of the migrant experience, through the eyes of Honoured – a woman who ‘starved for food in Greece and starved for Greece in Australia’.

We like to classify things to help us understand them. God Forgets About the Poor is classified as a novel and labelled as such (in very small writing) on the front cover, but it reads like a memoir. It is divided into seven sections, each focusing on a particular period in time. The first section, narrated by Honoured, is a convincing mixture of reminiscence and advice. The final section takes the reader to the immediate past and is narrated by Honoured’s son. The middle parts are presented in the third person and unpack various moments in her life, both in Greece and Australia. Throughout, the tone is sympathetic and non-judgemental.

As a child, Honoured was afflicted with a withering disease in her legs. When her father told her mother that he should take Honoured to the doctor, her mother objected:

‘She was suspicious of the doctor. It was well-known throughout the town and across all the villages that the doctor had predilections for men. Spirit silenced her. He said to her that across all the villages that he had lived and worked in for the last thirty years, each place had a kind of man like this. They were married, they kept homes, some of them looked after their mothers; these men could be found across the land and in this place he just happened to be a doctor.’

This fine nuanced approach is evident throughout the book, as is some delightful tongue-in-cheek commentary through Honoured’s perspective:

‘She missed the Arabic men in that shop. Their familiarity with her and their fast-talking mouths, it was a comfort because so many of the men in her life had too much to say but said nothing. All those Mediterranean men that were her friends throughout the years, like George at the library, the nut shop men, and even her husband. All born overseas, always motormouthed, the colour they injected in their lives was permanent.’

Read: Book review: New Australian Fiction 2023, edited by Suzy Garcia

In God Forgets About the Poor, Polites has produced a masterpiece. Not only does he vividly convey the lived experience of being an immigrant, but he also peppers Honoured’s fascinating story with an abundance of astute and memorable observations. If there is a God, perhaps they have indeed forgotten about the poor, as the title suggests. But I can only think of Honoured’s life as a rich one, well-lived and masterfully rendered.

God Forgets About the Poor by Peter Polites
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN 9781761151644
Paperback 272pp 
RRP $34.99
Publication: 2 August 2023

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.