Riverhead. Aug. 2022. 320p. ISBN 9780593541883. $28. F
In this U.S. release of Nobel winner Gurnah’s (Paradise; By the Sea) 2021 novel, a century of East Africa’s history comes viscerally to life through deeply flawed, wryly funny, sometimes admirable characters. Readers will meet Khalifa, an Indian/African accountant in a childless marriage with Asha; plus 10-year-old orphan Afiya, rescued from an abusive home by her brother Ilyas, a runaway snatched off the streets by German soldiers and sent to a work farm where he learned to read, write, and replace Islam with Christianity. Then there is young Hamza, too delicate for war but conscripted as an officer’s assistant until he displeased a superior and was viciously maimed. Their lives intertwine over generations as they work to survive and thrive on their land while German, British, and Portuguese occupiers plunder the region’s gold, coffee, rubber, and other abundant resources. Focusing on the daily lives of these people, Gurnah touches on important themes, including the push/pull of various cultures, the value of education for women, and the ramifications of protracted wars, though he fails to delve deeply into any.
VERDICT Will appeal to aficionados of historical fiction but could leave others yearning for a deeper understanding of the characters’ motivations for their sometimes inexplicable actions. Still, the Nobel Prize bestowed renewed international acclaim on Gurnah’s body of work, making this novel a must-have.
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