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Armchair Travelling: Africa

I am a keen traveller in normal times, and am missing the freedom in planning trips, and exploring new places with my boyfriend. At present, like almost everyone else around the world, my only travelling is occurring through books, and watching foreign language films and Scandi-crime dramas on Netflix.

I created the first of the posts in this new series in February, alerting you to eight books set in Korea which I am keen to read, or which I count amongst my favourites. For my second post, I have selected three African countries, merely because I could not find a great deal of books set in each location. My birthday trip to Morocco was cancelled last year, and we could not go ahead with our planned safari to The Gambia and Senegal either; therefore, these are my choices.

The Gambia

Four Guineas by Elspeth Huxley

‘This account of Elspeth Huxley’s travels in Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria gilds the Dark Continent–not because the author romanticizes it, but because she clarifies it…its history, superstitions and tribal ways, its beauty and power, its great contrasts and complexities. But this is no postcard and Huxley is not diverted by the exotic scenery and colorful natives. Instead, she pictures a region striving to maintain its heritage while finding a future. It’s like going ahead with one foot on the brake.’

A Season in Sinji by J.L. Carr

A Season in Sinji recreates life on a wartime RAF flying boat station in an African backwater. The dialogue evokes a wide range of characters, and in the bizarre cricket match which acts as a catharsis to the novel’s mounting passions, human dramas and irony are portrayed.’

Senegal

Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

‘Hailed by Chinua Achebe as one of the greatest African novels ever written, this long-unavailable classic tells the tale of young Samba Diallo, a devout pupil in a Koranic school in Senegal whose parents send him to Paris to study philosophy. But unknown to Samba, it is a desperate attempt by his parents to better understand the French colonial forces transforming their traditional way of life. Instead, for Samba, it seems an exciting adventure, and once in France he excels at his new studies and is delighted by his new “marvelous comprehension and total communion” with the Western world. Soon, though, he finds himself torn between the materialistic secularism and isolation of French civilization and the deeper spiritual influences of his homeland. As Samba puts it: “I have become the two.” Written in an elegant, lyrical prose, Ambiguous Adventure is a masterful expression of the immigrant experience and the repercussions of colonialism, and a great work of literature about the uneasy relationship between Islamic Africa and the West—a relationship more important today than ever before.’

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

‘In this new novel, the first by a black woman ever to win the coveted Prix Goncourt, Marie NDiaye creates a luminous narrative triptych as harrowing as it is beautiful. This is the story of three women who say no: Norah, a French-born lawyer who finds herself in Senegal, summoned by her estranged, tyrannical father to save another victim of his paternity; Fanta, who leaves a modest but contented life as a teacher in Dakar to follow her white boyfriend back to France, where his delusional depression and sense of failure poison everything; and Khady, a penniless widow put out by her husband’s family with nothing but the name of a distant cousin (the aforementioned Fanta) who lives in France, a place Khady can scarcely conceive of but toward which she must now take desperate flight. With lyrical intensity, Marie NDiaye masterfully evokes the relentless denial of dignity, to say nothing of happiness, in these lives caught between Africa and Europe. We see with stunning emotional exactitude how ordinary women discover unimagined reserves of strength, even as their humanity is chipped away. Three Strong Women admits us to an immigrant experience rarely if ever examined in fiction, but even more into the depths of the suffering heart.’

Morocco

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits evokes the grit and enduring grace that is modern Morocco. As four Moroccans illegally cross the Strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable boat headed for Spain, author Laila Lalami asks, What has driven them to risk their lives? And will the rewards prove to be worth the danger? There’s Murad, a gentle, unemployed man who’s been reduced to hustling tourists around Tangier; Halima, who’s fleeing her drunken husband and the slums of Casablanca; Aziz, who must leave behind his devoted wife in hope of securing work in Spain; and Faten, a student and religious fanatic whose faith is at odds with an influential man determined to destroy her future. Sensitively written with beauty and boldness, this is a gripping book about what propels people to risk their lives in search of a better future.’

A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

‘The Medina — the Old City — of Fez is the best-preserved, medieval walled city in the world. Inside this vibrant Moroccan community, internet cafes and mobile phones coexist with a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, thousand-year-old sewer systems, and Arab-style houses, gorgeous with intricate, if often shabby, mosaic work. While vacationing in Morocco, Suzanna Clarke and her husband, Sandy, are inspired to buy a dilapidated, centuries-old riad in Fez with the aim of restoring it to its original splendor, using only traditional craftsmen and handmade materials. So begins a remarkable adventure that is bewildering, at times hilarious, and ultimately immensely rewarding. A House in Fez chronicles their meticulous restoration, but it is also a journey into Moroccan customs and lore and a window into the lives of its people as friendships blossom. When the riad is finally returned to its former glory, Suzanna finds she has not just restored an old house, but also her soul.’

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

‘In Agatha Christie’s gripping international thriller Destination Unknown, a woman at the end of her rope chooses a more exciting way to die when she embarks upon an almost certain suicide mission to find a missing scientist. When a number of leading scientists disappear without a trace, concern grows within the international intelligence community. And the one woman who appears to hold the key to the mystery is dying from injuries sustained in a plane crash. Meanwhile, in a Casablanca hotel room, Hilary Craven prepares to take her own life. But her suicide attempt is about to be interrupted by a man who will offer her an altogether more thrilling way to die…’

Have you read any of these books? Where have you been travelling to through literature lately? If you have any countries which you’re itching to travel to, and wish me to include in this series, please just let me know!

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‘The Dhow House’ by Jean McNeil **

Of Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House, Giles Foden writes ‘This exotic novel handles large themes with assurance, tact and knowledge’.  The Observer have deemed her debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, ‘almost overwhelmingly vivid’, and the Times Literary Supplement herald it ‘striking for its vigour, wit and thoughtfulness’.  Its own blurb states that The Dhow House is a ‘seductive, fast-paced tale of lust, power and corruption’, as well as ‘forbidden love in a dark time’.  Whilst I am not familiar with her first novel, upon reading The Dhow House, McNeil’s work seems to me on this basis to be inconsistent; whilst the settings she describes are undoubtedly vivid, the characters and prose felt rather flat to me.

9781785079443Rebecca Laurelson is the protagonist of The Dhow House.  She goes to live at her relatively unknown aunt’s house near Kilindoni in Tanzania, after being forced to leave her job post in an East African field hospital.  For whites, the African coast holds many dangers, the ultimate threat that of Islamist terrorism.  On the face of it, as it deals with such poignant themes as terror attacks, one would expect the novel to be both insightful and important.  Such elements, however, felt overshadowed by the element of love story here.  In what feels to me like a massive cliche, Rebecca soon falls in love with her young cousin, Storm.  The very description which McNeil offers of him is banal: ‘His eyes were the depthless blue of swimming pools’.  How could they possibly be anything else?  The way in which Rebecca’s feelings for him are expressed follow a similarly cringeworthy pattern: ‘As she’d taken his hand she’d felt an odd buzzing in the pit of her stomach’.

Oddly, McNeil’s scenic depictions are far more striking, and hold some of the vividness which other reviewers have picked up on in her earlier work.  Sentences such as ‘A flare of sun over a blood ocean’ and ‘The sun rises like a proximate planet, a burning ceramic moon’ hold such power, and even hover around the bounds of originality.  McNeil’s use of cultural details, both historical and contemporary, help to ease the setting into life.  She is evidently very familiar with African weather patterns and geography, and renders every backdrop into which her characters step realistic.  The novel is a visual one, but other senses have almost been forgotten in the foregrounding of places.

The use of two narrative perspectives – the first and third person – worked well here.  The plot, however, is rather drawn out in places.  Details which are included are sometimes repetitive or superfluous, and I must admit that I became a little frustrated with the inclusion of such unnecessary details.

McNeil’s strength definitely lies within her descriptive power; it is just a shame that the rest of the book falls flat and imbalanced in comparison.  The Dhow House feels accurate in terms of place, but the scenery feels more realistic than those who people it.  The whole never really came to life for me.  There was so much potential here, and had the plot been tighter, I probably would have enjoyed it far more.  There are also quite a few issues with consistency which I noticed throughout, particularly with regard to grammar and tenses.  The relatively poor editing does let the whole down considerably, as any degree of fluency is lost in those places which would have benefitted from it the most.

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