Without really planning to, in April and May this year I read three books all set (primarily) in Africa. Through them I learnt things I’d never known, or most likely had forgotten. It was also interesting to note in all of them a strain of imperfection – imperfect places and imperfect characters.
The first, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, is set mostly in Ethiopia, an Ethiopia that faces revolution, civil war and a movement to liberate neighbouring Eritrea. The presence of multiple cultural influences in the book adds to its richness, Italian being one of those, since Italy occupied Ethiopia for a period. It is the political situation that leads to the American section of the book. One of the protagonists, Marion Stone, has to flee being wrongly accused of being part of the Liberation Movement. He heads for the Bronx, New York, where he works as a doctor. In a city so often lauded for its quality and status, New York is presented here in its imperfections. Compared to hospitals with more prestige, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour where Marion works, is underfunded and attracts a mix of foreign doctors. The inequity in modern-day America is highlighted, but is done so in a matter-of-fact way, which I appreciated. The earlier story contains a wonderfully detailed family life at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, and for the full book we are treated to in-depth explanations of medical procedures. Although fascinating, the latter is a little heavy-handed. Still, it is described lyrically and forms the really intense parts of the story.
The Crossing by Manjeet Mann, actually starts in Ethiopia’s neighbouring country, the now-independent Eritrea. Sammy, a teenager who lives there, flees enforced conscription and makes for England. His journey as a refugee is harrowing and it is remarkable that he makes it as far as the English Channel. Here he has just one last body of water to swim across before reaching his goal, ‘the promised land’. At the same time, we read about Natalie, a teenager who lives in England. An England that is far from the ‘promised land’ of Sammy’s imagination. Natalie’s family is to be turfed out of their accommodation, her brother protests bitterly about ‘refugees coming in to take the locals’ jobs’, and Natalie grieves her late mother. It is the latter that spurs Natalie into swimming the channel to raise money for a refugee charity. In a series of coincidences Natalie and Sammy learn about each other and set out at the same time to ‘cross’ the English channel. The Crossing, aimed at Young Adults, is written in verse, in simple language, and with clever use of typography and concrete poetry. It was shortlisted in this year’s Carnegie Medal.
The Country of Others by Leila Slimani is set in Morocco in the 1950s when Morocco is still a French colony and then later rebels against its colonisers. The main characters are Amien and his wife Mathilde and their daughter Ayesha. Amien is Moroccan, Arabic and Black, while Mathilde is French, Catholic and White. They meet in France during WWII, when Amien is conscripted by the French to fight for them against the Germans. I found this interesting – how difficult must it have been to for Amien to fight for the coloniser to whom he did not really owe allegiance? I say ‘don’t really’ because a great deal of ambiguity is written into the characters. The relationship between Mathilde and Amien especially is reflective of the relationship between Morocco and France: at once in love and in hate. This relationship is likened in the book to the Lironge tree – an orange tree into which a lemon tree has been grafted. The result is an unpalatable fruit. Fittingly, Morocco itself is not portrayed as salubrious, unlike the delight I understand the tourist’s Morocco to be. The characters in The Country of Others are unlikable, a fact that only serves to underscore the ambiguity and to provide a good, thought-provoking read.