The opening scenes from The Lebs could be mistaken for speculative fiction, in which ethnic minorities are forced into guarded enclaves, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire, and monitored by surveillance cameras. But Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s second novel is closer to social realism: it is set within the surreal banality of Punchbowl Boys High School in Sydney’s western suburbs and narrated by Bani Adam, a young Lebanese-Australian man struggling to find his place in the world. The year is 2001, as we learn from the fall of the twin towers in the novel’s first pages (an event loaded with ambivalence for the boys of Punchbowl). Bani spends most of his time with Omar, a boy who lives in the same street, and Shaky, who has a Lebanese father but whose mother is “Aussie as meat pie” – and who therefore has the ambiguous luxury of “passing” as white when he wants to pick up girls or to avoid police harassment. Bani, Omar and Shaky are killing time, caught in the uneasy space between cultures and between childhood and adulthood. They are desperate to get laid, but still want their future wives to be good Muslim virgins. They prefer McDonald’s and KFC to home-cooked food, but feel bad when this upsets their mothers. Bani Adam is the quintessential insider-outsider figure. As he is constantly reminding us, or perhaps himself, he is different, better: a diligent student who loves books, dreams of becoming a writer, and fantasises about gazing into his English teacher’s eyes and impressing her with his knowledge of literature. Bani’s first-person perspective is simultaneously the novel’s greatest strength and biggest limitation. He is potentially unreliable as a narrator, and the obvious naivety of many of his views is freighted with dramatic irony. Bani has read Lolita on the advice of his adored teacher, and it functions as a kind of clue to how we might read his own narration. And yet, even when read ironically, Bani’s narration can feel torpid, particularly in the early parts of the novel. Lolita would, after all, be a very different novel if it were narrated by “Lolita” herself. What is genuinely moving, however, is Bani’s struggle between the sense of superiority and destiny he must maintain in order to do any more than survive his school days, and the shame and isolation that are its side effects. When Bani graduates from high school, we see the beginnings of a self-aware humour that signals he is growing up. In its strongest moments The Lebs thrums with what Bani describes as “the power that comes not from being on top of the evolutionary chain but rather from being at the bottom”, and even in its weakest it is an important and affecting account of the complexities inherent in such a position. Michael Mohammed Ahmad seems set to become a major force in Australian literature.