Game Show by Allie Cresswell
Imagine that for one night only you could do absolutely anything you wanted and get away with it.
Welcome to Game Show.
It is 1992, and in a Bosnian town a small family cowers in their basement. The Serbian militia is coming – an assorted rabble of malcontents given authority by a uniform and inflamed by the idea that they’re owed something, big-time, and the Bosnians are going to pay. When they get to the town they will ransack the houses, round-up the men and rape the women. Who’s to stop them? Who’s to accuse them? Who will be left, to tell the tale?
Meanwhile, in a nondescript northern UK town, a group of contestants make their way to the TV studios to take part in a radical new Game Show. There’s money to be won, and fun to be had. They’ll be able to throw off their inhibitions and do what they want because they’ll all be in disguise and no-one will ever know.
In a disturbing denouement, war and game meld into each other as action and consequence are divided, the words ‘blame’ and ‘fault’ have no meaning and impunity reigns.
Game Show asks whether the situation which fostered the Bosnian war, the genocide in Rwanda, the rise of so-called Islamic State in Syria and the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar could ever happen in the West. The answer will shock you.
This is a compelling and forceful book which I highly recommend everyone to read. As an historian, it took me to past events that I wish hadn’t crammed themselves into my mind all at once, but in the context of this book they are important to remember. More of these later.
I found it difficult to get hooked into the reading at first. There are many characters introduced to the reader quite quickly, and repeatedly being engaged with one and then pulled to another could have resulted in putting the book down. The author’s writing however, is consistent, intelligent, and seductive; you want to know where these characters’ experiences will take them, so you must keep reading. The slow build throughout the first part of the novel reaches its apex about halfway, and from there on all the strands start to come together ever more tightly.
The characters are well-defined, and you will have mixed feelings about some of them, like others, and detest some. The overlapping of lives, and the stark contrast between the Game Show and its contestants and the wretched desperation of the family and people in Bosnia, are handled with unmitigated skill. The pace and tension build to a crescendo in one story, only to sweep you up and do it all again in the next, leaving you both mentally and emotionally exhausted by the end. Thankfully there are moments of ‘comic relief’ to ease your reading journey.
The question posed in the synopsis asks – could this happen in the West? Well it has…the Holocaust. Germany was a civilised land of art, literature, music, and more, and was no more anti-Semitic than many other nations. It took poverty, hunger, greed, a desire for power and someone to blame, coupled to an extreme political party and its leader, for people to turn on one another. Sounds remote? This book is set in 1992, but speaks directly to us now. Currently, we are in a situation where ‘poverty, hunger, greed, a desire for power and someone to blame’ are causing problems in many nations, including First World countries. So no, the answer did not shock, and Game Show goes much deeper than that.
The use and abuse of power against people has been repeated many times by the West just since 1945; Kenya, Vietnam, Abu Ghraib, are three that spring to mind, as well as the several waves of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. The use of rape as a weapon of war is well documented, and while it is right that this is an important theme in the book, I feel it was over-used. Sexual violence encompasses a broad spectrum, as does torture, and it would have been fitting to have included those too.
What the author does highlight most effectively, is the political constipation that allows these events not only to happen, but to continue to happen and to spiral out of control, with none taking action to stop it. Leaders can be caught up in the chaos, as demonstrated by the Stanford Experiment (see end notes and appendices in the book). They can also be so caught up in their political careers, busy cow-towing to political behemoths, they become too paralysed to do what they know is the right thing.
In addition, the advent of reality TV and its repeated pushing of the boundaries of acceptability, is also most powerfully highlighted. To my mind, the author’s big question isn’t ‘could it happen’, but who will stop it? If we can treat our fellow human beings so viciously and brutally, then without restrictions and rules, it is inevitable that reality TV will continue to push boundaries. Where will it end? Allie Cresswell shows us a very real possibility ‘Game Show’.
As you may have guessed, this book touched me deeply. It is powerful and emotional, BUT it is exceptional. I highly recommend reading it.
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