The TripFiction Book Club July/August ’19 reads ‘A Summer Reunion’ by Fanny Blake
Novel set in Africa (trade not aid)
18th May 2019
African Beauty by Mark Weston, novel set in Africa.
We have recently seen in the news that there have been some very murky and unethical practices carried out under the auspices of reputable aid organisations, when aid workers have been despatched to various countries around the world. The remit of an aid organisation, ostensibly, is to help and support countries and their peoples in times of hardship and trouble. This is the novel that explores many of those practices – including the sex worker industry – set across Africa.
When I picked up the book I noted a quote on the back cover: “Mark Weston has written the novel the aid industry deserves” and I honestly wasn’t sure whether this was a positive or negative observation and I did wonder why it was on the cover.
I guess I need to start with the cover itself, black and funereal, which ultimately does reflect the content to some extent. Stark. Dark. Striking. The woman’s face is captivating. But, would I pick this book in a book shop? The honest answer is probably no. There are very few monochrome books out there and there is a reason why colour is used in the vast majority of book covers….
Now, on to the subject matter. A British man who has worked in the aid sector for many a year is in pursuit of a woman, a woman of indescribable beauty, possibly so wonderful that she is no ordinary mortal. She is on the move from one location to the next and he is in hot pursuit. He has had a lifetime’s worth of sordid encounters; the encounters in his early years with the sex workers on the continent of Africa are described as “a writhing fettuccine of debauchery” [sic!] and she would be the final crowning glory of his louche life – indeed, is that the reason for his quest or is there something else that is driving him on? She would, it is said, relieve him of 30,000 Shillings for a passionate encounter.
This is a determined odyssey across parts of the continent, as he gamely maps out his Chaucerian adventures. Diamond smugglers, pastors, witch doctors, kidnappings along the way and colourful characters pepper his path, and it is the description of the country and the people in their country at which the author excels, so evident in the author’s African travelogue The Ringtone and the Drum.
The aid worker is fuelled by his obsession, a quest to find what real beauty looks like, but beauty, like his odyssey, is a passing phenomenon. The author reflects on the cult of beauty, something that is evanescent, changing over time with age and fashion. He also reflects on corruption across the continent.
The story is based on rumours the author heard whilst living on Ukerewe Island in the Tanzanian half of Lake Victoria. He says that there was a huge sex industry in the vicinity, the workers selling themselves for a pittance. And then he heard tell of the most wondrous woman who was able to charge ten times (at least it seems) the going rate. This inspired the book.
The writing is wonderful, the depiction of setting, in all its rawness, is excellent. You can tell the author knows his stuff. The author is a natural chronicler of what he sees, so evident in his East African travelogue. Essentially this book felt like a travelogue, clutching at a storyline so that it could somehow fit into the fiction genre….. it wasn’t really for me.
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