Lead Review

  • Book: The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivanna
  • Location: Guadeloupe, Mali
  • Author: Maryse Condé

Review Author: tripfiction



Set mostly in Guadeloupe and Mali, The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivanna is a captivating post-colonial tale of violence and sibling love.

From the moment twins Ivan and Ivanna exit their mother’s womb, the reader is drawn into a rollercoaster of events heading down a fateful and eventually fatal chute. The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivanna is mainly a picaresque adventure of Ivan and the ne’er-do-wells he meets, who inch by inch lead him to adopt radical views. While Ivanna excels at school, Ivan is in and out of prison. He is a misfit, an outsider estranged from normal life, his saving grace his reverent love for his sister. It is a love reciprocated, a love deep and pure, yet a love that teeters on the edge of taboo.

There is a delightful biting wit and a highly focussed characterisation driving the narrative, holding the reader in thrall. The story jumps back and forth in time and from here to there in short sharp bursts. Ivan and Ivanna are on different paths, the dark and the light, yet inextricably bound together. Through the lens of her characters and her story, Condé provides an impressive account of the complexities found in her own homeland, the volcanic Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, with its poverty and inequality, the result of a French colonial legacy that continues to this day. It is on Guadeloupe that the twins’ mother Simone ekes out a living. And it is here that Simone’s clairvoyant mother Maeva presages doom through her recurrent dream of the twins lying in a pool of blood.

One third in and the story moves to Mali, the homeland of the father who throughout the twins’ childhood took no interest in their lives. It is only when, in a fit of desperation, Simone begs for Lansana’s help, that he steps up to his responsibilities. Mali is a nation riven by civil war and jihadist militias, a reality Ivan must face and find his way in. Yet it is a country of exquisite landscapes and rich music, aspects appreciated by Ivana. Condé presents a colourful and realistic portrait of life in the compounds of Kidal, a large town in the desert region of northern Mali, and it is clear the author writes from first-hand knowledge.

The story culminates in Paris where Ivan’s fundamentalism deepens and leads him straight into tragedy. To write more about this would spoil the story which is a literary tour de force that draws on the author’s personal sense of place. The result is richly evocative and disturbing, the reader left educated as much as entertained. Here is travel fiction of a rare and special kind.

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