The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 23 February 2018


by Norman Rush

The developing nations of Africa have long relied upon the support they receive from other nations in the world, many of those their former colonial overlords. The effects of colonialism there have cast long lingering shadows on African culture. Today, China is making deep cultural inroads (and is poaching much of the dwindling wildlife that once made Africa such an exotic place). Africa is full of problems and challenges. Much like the rest of the world, really. But the experience of being a foreigner at work in Africa seems particular to that continent. There is much to learn from African culture, but there is also an entire subculture of the NGO industry that tries, and occasionally succeeds, in making positive change there. This is an evolving culture, less entrenched, perhaps, than in previous decades. In the early 1980s, Norman Rush spent a number of years working on development in Africa. It is in that time that this novel is set. There is not a lot the reader can learn about Africa in this novel, but Africa is the unique background to a story of almost anthropological detail, a story about one woman and her goals of being with a particular man.

They are both anthropologists. The novel is narrated by the unnamed woman (a bold enough challenge for a male writer in his first novel), who has a stalled PhD thesis and a feeling of being unmoored after changes in the development programs in which she is involved in Botswana. The book opens with her telling in almost academic detail about some of her previous romantic entanglements in Africa. Then she goes on to become enraptured by Nelson Denoon, an enigmatic and famously successful scientist who has come to Africa to help build better self-sufficient communities. His current project, a village in the middle of the Kalahari desert, is mysterious. He keeps its secrets well-hidden for fear of its fragility. Ultimately, our unnamed narrator takes a daring, and probably stupid, journey across the desert to work with this man, and hopefully more. What she finds there is his attempt to undermine the patriarchal social structure so common to Africa. He tries to build a matriarchal community in which women can make their own way, make their own choices, develop an alternative to the status quo. That this is a fragile experiment is borne out through the story. The forces of tradition are formidable.

Meanwhile, our narrator is trying to figure out this man. She insinuates herself into his project and into his life. They are soon enough romantically entangled. At the same time, Denoon is acutely aware of his role of white man in this community and does not want to create the idea that he and his new mate are building another colonial dynasty here. The narration of the story is elaborate and wildly erudite. There are long meditations and conversations about politics, religion, art and culture. Our narrator has a scientific view of her experiences and her story is full of analysis and, perhaps, overthinking of the situation. Her character is a bit self-absorbed here, and has small obsessions that creep through her story, such as the fact of her overweight mother and her subsequent frequent comments on her weight, Denoon's fitness, and the shape and size of many of the people she encounters. That self-absorption, either from the character or the author, also makes the other characters in the book less fleshed-out, so to speak, than the narrator herself. She has dropped in on Denoon and his experiment, she tries to fit into it, but she can't quite make the shape of its opening fit the shape she is trying to insert there. Any story this long about a relationship is almost doomed to eventually describe its end. Despite her high-flown ideas of what life with Denoon would be like, it is a subtly described descent into the conventional that causes its failure. The book is good, if somewhat frustrating. The images it evokes of African development in its time are pale, as if faded. It remains to be observed by readers other than this one whether Rush has successfully occupied the mind of his female narrator. But, it is a unique setting and an idiosyncratically told story, feminist in tone, but realist in the end.

(For this book, Norman Rush was awarded the 1991 National Book Award for fiction.)

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