Great fiction set in WEST AFRICA – 1990s ex-pat life with a bit of a twist

  • Book: The Cloths of Heaven
  • Location: The Gambia, West Africa
  • Author: Sue Eckstein

Review Author: tripfiction



This novel was first published in 2009 – a first novel – The Cloths of Heaven is a definite winner…

Sue Eckstein used to live in The Gambia and the book is about life in an unspecified West African country – not hard to guess which. It is set in the 90s and its execution is reminiscent of either Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh… two of my favourite authors. It is the Africa of ex-pats and the FCO. Larger than life characters that lead a charmed life away from the restrictions of UK suburban conurbations, where most of them probably belong. Isabel and Patrick Redmond – with Patrick’s obsession for writing poetry and photographing ‘pendulous black breasts’, Isabel tolerant as she can be of his foibles. Then there are the High Commissioner (Alec) and his wife Fenella – both engaged in steamy extra marital affairs. And Bob Newman, a buffoon like character, engaged on planning a time share in the middle of nowhere. Plus Father Seamus, a Catholic priest who doesn’t quite follow all his vows. You probably get the idea…

Into this environment comes Daniel, a sensitive recruit to the FCO. Daniel is not one for the goings on and the social occasions. He prefers getting to know the ‘natives’ and looks for places to visit that are a fair distance from his High Commission colleagues. He meets Rachel, a white girl and a mysterious cutter and seller of cloth in a local warehouse. And hereby hangs a tale…

The story line of The Cloths of Heaven is okay… probably no more. But there is pure delight in the drawing of the characters and in their interaction – and I am sure this is what the book is about. They are all larger than life and all fit together perfectly in a strange mosaic. The Gambia (sorry, an anonymous West African country…) is a star of the book. From the steamy and oppressive heat to the descriptions of the tourists who fly in for a cheap two weeks on a beach – and return home with the obligatory carved elephant (an animal, of course, never seen in this part of Africa).

Sue Eckstein sadly died in 2013 – and the edition of The Clothes of Heaven that I read is a new one, I suspect re-issued to mark the event. I have not read, but now will, her second novel – Interpreters published in 2011. Interpreters is a very different book – about the experiences of a woman in early wartime Germany and the impact that events then had on her later family.

Sue Eckstein was a very talented writer and observer of people. She will be missed.

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750 - 3000 words with strong 'sense of place' theme

Short story, travelogue, or memoir

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