Sunday, March 29, 2009

Africa for Westerners

Poetry month is almost upon us, and as I am so preoccupied with poems in April, I am trying to catch up on a few reviews before then! Here are a couple I found similarities between while reading -- they are two books I've read over the past couple of weeks that both have to do with a Westerner's experience of Africa. Here's a little about each:

Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2008
266 p.

This was first published as The Other Hand in the UK. I prefer that title for its shades of meaning, but despite the title change, I do like the Canadian cover (shown here) best. In this novel, shortlisted for the Costa Award, we are introduced to Little Bee. She is a Nigerian refugee in England, and the book opens with her in an immigrant detention centre. She is released with no guidance on what to do next. But Little Bee has a driver's license with the name of Andrew O'Rourke on it; he dropped it on the beach when he was in Nigeria. So right away you begin to wonder how Andrew got to be in Nigeria and what the connection will be. This book has had lots of press for its searing insight into Britain's immigration rules and conditions; for me, the fact that it was ultimately an "issue" novel detracted from my pleasure in reading it. In the endnotes he provides links to more information on the topic - a sign of the earnest desire to educate which I feel diminishes a novel's power. Nevertheless, I found Little Bee herself an interesting character; her life story is undeniably dramatic and her determination to live is strong. The English couple, however, were just too irritating for me. Sarah is a self-absorbed middle class woman who has one moment of strength, which the story is centred on. Her husband is a pompous and unlikeable newspaper columnist. Worst of all is their young son, who talks in a babyish pastiche which was SO annoying it almost made me stop reading. I am probably in the vast minority on this one, but I really didn't think it was as extraordinary as I'd been led to believe. My rating: okay, but not a must read at all.

The Violets of Usambara / Mary Soderstrom
Toronto: Cormorant, c2008.
190 p.

This novel is a short one, and is the tale of a couple whose lives are at the cusp of change. Thomas Brossard is a former government minister who is out of work due to a change in government. His wife Louise, always the driving force in his life, has suggested he go to Africa with a Catholic charity. Africa has always been her interest, but she feels he needs something to occupy him now. Besides, she is agoraphobic. The story goes back and forth between Louise (Montreal) and Thomas (Burundi), with forays into the past exploring their relationship from its beginnings to its uncomfortable present. When Thomas goes missing in Africa, Louise must struggle to come to terms with the problems they'd been having while she waits for news. This a very adult book in its quiet and understated narrative style. There are shades of grey in every situation, both in Montreal and in Burundi. It brought up issues of Western 'assistance' to African nations, and of the treatment Thomas receives first as a politician then as a private citizen. As for the title, Burundi is the original home of what is now known as the African violet -- Louise is a collector of violets, and Thomas' movement toward reconciliation uses both of these facts. It was a nuanced tale I found especially interesting for its setting in Montreal, practically around the corner from my student digs in my years in the city.


  1. Both of these sound like exceptional books. I am gearing up for National Poetry Month as well.

  2. Little Bee is quite popular at the moment among the book blog crowd, for good reason it seems.

    I haven't heard of The Violets of Usambara (gorgeous cover) but it does sound like one I'd like to read. Thanks for the review.

  3. So glad you liked The Violets of Usambara. I put more than 10 years of my life into writing it, and it is such a pleasure when readers "get" what I was trying to do.

    Best wishes



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