Dance of the Jakaranda tells the story of three men, two white British settlers and one Indian emigrant, who live in what will become Kenya and initially build the railroad that connect the hinterland to the port of Mombasa. Their personal lives are linked in direct and indirect ways, and will play out through their descendants in the story, which takes us through the early days of independence. The plot is intricate and often has unexpected twists, and the author’s description of the land is affectionate and occasionally lyrical. The history lesson is a bonus.
Tag Archives: Africa
Written by an anthropologist, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen tells the story of the people of the Kalahari, which many of us will think we know from a single movie, The Gods Must be Crazy, but of course the reality is infinitely more nuanced (although we do meet the star of the movie in this account). The book is surprisingly meandering and unstructured, which grated on me somewhat, but does a magnificent job of presenting real people and the essential quality of a culture so unlike the Western one: where life is lived day by day with no fretting or preparing for the future, and the idea of appearing superior to others is just impossible. The past and present exploitation of the Bushmen is clearly told, but the focus is on how they are making the transition to a new, still not completely defined way of life.
Something to Hide is an utterly unpretentious and fun story of four women whose fates are shown to intertwine after many twists and many secrets (most from one woman to the other). I was concerned at first that the four far-flung locations would be exploited with heavy descriptions of travel and local attractions, but they end up fitting completely into the story and giving it the mysteries it needs. Yes, it’s a madcap pace but the emotions of the women are real and well-rendered.
The Dhow House has many strengths: a wonderfully tropical island setting off the coast of Tanzania, a shadowy group of Islamist terrorists, a forgotten extended family, carefully researched birds, and spies! But I found the story unexpectedly slow-moving and focused on the minute feelings of the heroine, for whom I could not get to fully care, whether to love her or to hate her. A more patient and introspective reader may like this book more than I did.
The Gloaming brings together an unlikely set of three Westerners fleeing various dreadful events of their past into a small town in Tanzania. The story slowly unfolds the characters’ back stories, even as various actors of their pasts track them down. It’s all very dark and cleverly layered, and full of complicated people that are never 100% good or 100% evil. Haunting.
Homegoing is an ambitious novel, blending stories from eight different generations of a family from modern-day Ghana, one branch sold into slavery and ending up in the United States, the other one staying behind. The story is heavily, ponderously articulated around historical themes, and I often wished that it would show more than tell: we readers can easily tell that slavery is a horrible system by reading of the characters’ misadventures; we don’t need an harangue to explain. And why the emphasis on royal roots? The story would have been just as good with non-royals, I think.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts tells two stories: first, how the hero of the book managed to gather together hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts that had been hidden around Mali after the Timbuktu empire crumbled, and how, just went years later, he (and many others) fought to secrete them out of Timbuktu ahead of Islamist extremists eager to destroy anything that did not correspond to their very peculiar interpretation of the Quran. The book manages to describe the flourishing of Timbuktu in the 1500s, the patient search to obtain the manuscripts from people who were quite doubtful that they would be safe outside their hands (and were right about that!), the quest for funding to restore the manuscripts, and the hair-raising evacuation of the library. While the critics seem to hail the evacuation, I found the earlier sections just as fascinating.