These two novels by established British authors, and published today by two independent presses, both feature an English woman in Africa trying to connect with family, against a backdrop of terrorist attacks and political unrest. Read on to discover the different ways these authors have explored these issues. Thanks to Salt and Legend Press for my review copies.
When her older sister, Bridie, now known as Sister Sebastian, goes missing from her post as a missionary in an unnamed North African country, Elodie O’Shea feels compelled to go out there to investigate. While it’s possible to put her job, as a microbiologist researching malarial mosquitoes, on hold, she can’t quite escape her domestic responsibilities, which she manages through emails home to her anxious mother, placid son and angry teenage daughter, and her increasingly uncooperative husband. The short trip abroad also affords her an opportunity to meet up with her lover, Henning, with whom she’s been conducting a long-distance relationship since they met at a conference, and consider pros and cons of their forging a future together. Her sister’s plight also creates the conditions for her to reflect on their relationship over the years from their Catholic childhood with a bullying father and downtrodden mother, through the rock festivals and travels of their adolescence, to Bridie’s surprise decision to become a nun, and the distance this, and Elodie’s reaction to it, has put between them. So she has a lot on her mind, even without the shadow of terrorism that hangs over the conservative country. Phil Whitaker’s fifth novel, Sister Sebastian’s Library is about family, regrets and responsibility, and what we do with the chance to start again.
Rebecca Laurelson is an English doctor working in an East African field hospital, attending to the wounds of combatants from both sides of the war, as well as those caught in the crossfire, of body, mind and religious affiliation. For reasons that are initially unclear, she leaves her post to visit her deceased mother’s sister and her family in their luxurious home on the coast. Although they involve her in their activities, including dinner parties with fellow white Africans both in their home and out at sea, there’s a certain coldness between them. Is this because Rebecca and her aunt, uncle and cousins are virtual strangers; because of a clash of cultures between Rebecca’s humanitarian role at the front and the family’s extreme wealth and privilege; or because Rebecca has another purpose in being there beyond reconnecting with her only living relatives? As an election approaches, and violence in the area escalates, Rebecca’s attraction to her much younger cousin grows and it’s not only the weather that’s hotting up. The Dhow House is a novel of colonialism, hidden passion and terrorism, which brings the spy story into the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, I found the stylistic quirks (the split of Rebecca’s character into first and third person narration, and an avoidance of the use of her name in the third person narrative even when there were other “shes” in the scene) distanced me from what was already a complex and ambitious plot.
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Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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