Book review: Safe Haven, Shankari Chandran

The Miles Franklin Award-winning author's new book tackles the politics of Australian detention centres.
Safe Haven. On the right is an author headshot, waist up of a woman of Indian appearance, all in black with arms folded, smiling and looking off the right. On the left is a book jacket in blue, with an illustration of a boat on the sea at night on the front.

Safe Haven is Shankari Chandran’s fourth novel. It comes after Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2022. In her latest offering, Chandran examines life in a detention centre, and explores the struggles of refugees caught between the traumatic process of their arrival, and their unwilling subjugation to Australia’s brutal anti-asylum seeker legislation, which provides anything but a safe haven.

In the opening sequence, a sinking boat carrying Sri Lankan Tamil refugees is rescued by a nearby Norwegian cargo ship. One of those onboard is Sister Serafina Daniels, a nun who has fled the violence of the civil war.

The asylum seekers’ vessel is delivered to the fictional Port Camden detention centre, just north of Darwin. This narrative arc – and, indeed, the whole novel – speaks clearly to the realities of the sociopolitical landscape of Australia, to the early-2000s Pacific Solution (heralding the beginning of offshore detention) and also, later on, to the public reaction to the plight of the Biloela family.

Here, Chandran’s writing cleverly inches into the deeply-entrenched horrors of Australia’s mistreatment of refugees – always cutting to the core of this nation’s shameful recent, and continuing, history, with a keen writerly eye that clearly demonstrates her background in social justice and law.

Years pass. In detention, Serafina assumes the role of pastoral carer for her fellow refugees – a position that sustains her through their shared mistreatment, but which also allows her to see, with awful clarity, the cruelties of the Australian authorities. After speaking up, Serafina is arrested, which moves Safe Haven into a space that allows for full immersion into the realities of the misuse of power and the discomfort caused for those who benefit from these structural privileges when they come to be disrupted.

Yet despite the agonising subject matter, Chandran’s work is not nihilistic. This novel offers a strong belief in the goodness of those who are subject to brutality and mistreatment, and an unwavering faith in their strength, solidarity and ability to overcome the structural violences that are done to them.

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In her note on the text, Chandran writes that, through Safe Haven, she is trying to ‘understand what lies behind our detention policies… [which are] one of the many contradictions of our country’. Safe Haven offers readers a novel that does exactly that – exploring, through a fictional lens, the ways in which these intertwined histories come to deliver powerful personal, emotional and political legacies.

Safe Haven, Shankari Chandran
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN: 9781761151279
Pages: 320pp
Publication Date: May 2024
RRP: $34.99

Ellie Fisher is a writer. Her creative work has appeared in Westerly Magazine, Swim Meet Lit Mag, Devotion Zine, and Pulch Mag, amongst others. Ellie is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. She splits her time between Kinjarling and Boorloo.