Norton. Jun. 2019. 288p. ISBN 9780393239591. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393355710. F
In this timely and ultimately optimistic work, Habila (Oil on Water) examines the state of the African diaspora in Europe. An unnamed narrator, a Nigerian living in Virginia, accompanies his wife, Gina, to Berlin. There, she will work on an art installation, and he is expected to reignite his passion for a stalled doctoral thesis on the 1884 Berlin Conference at which Western countries plotted to despoil the African continent. Gina’s subjects are political exiles and refugees, and as she paints, her husband becomes immersed in their stories. There’s cinema student Mark, whose transgender status renders him an outcast in Malawi, and Libyan physician Manu, working as a nightclub bouncer while searching daily for his wife and son, lost during the Mediterranean crossing. When the narrator encounters Karim, a Somali shopkeeper who tells of traveling in exile through Yemen, Syria, and Turkey, a mix-up on the train lands him in a Sicilian deportation camp, where he internalizes the awful nature of statelessness.
VERDICT Through six interconnected sections, Caine Prize winner and Chinua Achebe Fellow Habila evokes the visceral, heartbreaking anguish of the outsider’s dilemma: to assimilate or return to the land one calls home. Guaranteed to promote empathy and understanding for refugees worldwide. [See Prepub Alert, 12/6/18.]

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