Walking on Dry Land by Denis Kehoe

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Walking on Dry Land by Denis Kehoe

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Set mainly in Angola, this is the story of Ana and her attempt to find her birth mother whose affair with her father remains a mystery to her. Alternating between her present day search and the history of her parents' relationship and early life in colonial Angola, it explores Ana's family secret.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846687815

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Ana has grown up mostly in Portugal, but now lives in Dublin where she teaches film studies and is writing her PHD. However, she was born in Anglola (then a Portuguese colony), the result of an extra-marital relationship of her father, who then adopted her with his wife. When her adopted mother, Helena, dies, she decides to trace her birth mother in Angola, where her brother now lives, but has nothing much to go on but a photocopy of a photograph of two Angolan girls, one of which may, or may not, be her mother, and a name: Solange Mendes. We follow Ana as she attempts to trace her real mother while in alternating chapters exploring her parents' developing relationship and ultimately how her unusual past evolved.

Mostly set in Angola, the idea is interesting, but there's a lot going on in what is a relatively short book and at times it feels like Kehoe has tried to get too many ideas into this story to the detriment of clarity. I only occasionally felt engaged with Ana's plight and search and while I was eager to read more about the fascinating history of modern day Angola and the independence movement, only rarely did I feel that we were getting to the heart of the country. Neither is her brother's reaction to Ana seeking the identity of her birth mother explored and we are left with the tantalising prospect of Ana returning to see her father (who knows nothing of the purpose of her trip) to explain what she may or may not have found out.

The alternating chapters of current day and history is often used in novels and there is a nice sense of the two stories coming together towards the end, but perhaps one of the reasons that I didn't engage more with the story is that each chapter is quite short so it's difficult to get immersed in either story. As the past story develops, it increasingly becomes clear that this is seen as a movie and the links between movies and what Ana is seeing is also strongly emphasised. This is one of those aspects that's interesting and even clever, given Ana's job, but perhaps also leads to the alienation aspect as the reader is aware of watching a story rather than feeling it.

The departure of the Portuguese from Angola was relatively recent in colonial history terms (1970s) and is not one that I've seen much covered in novels so I was keen to learn more. However, as often happens, this process was far from straightforward and there was a lot of factional conflict amongst Angolans - no, that's putting it too mildly - there was a bloody civil war! Again I wanted to learn more and, indeed Kehoe does attempt to explain a little bit but the problem is that the factions are all called by their initials and after a while I started to think of them all as the FLAP (Four Letter Acronym Party). It's next to impossible for the complexity to be made clear in such a short novel where the focus is on the implications of the war, but I found it more confusing than illuminating.

At the risk of sounding grammatically pedantic, Kehoe also has a couple of style issues that I found detracted from my enjoyment simply because it made me have to read some sentences twice to discern the meaning. At times he randomly drops personal pronouns but more confusingly he has a habit of sometimes starting a new sentence and indeed paragraph with what is effectively a clause to the preceding sentence such that the latter isn't a proper sentence at all. To be fair, I got used to it after a while, but it doesn't appear to have any great purpose. Less pedantic readers may not even notice it.

If this all sounds very critical, it's not meant to. Indeed each of these aspects alone is no great issue, but they added up to detracting from the reading experience for me. However, of course any story that involves deep family secrets is always an interesting subject area, and there are precious few good novels about Portugal's colonial past, particularly compared with that of neighbouring Spain.

Our thanks as always to the good people of Serpent's Tail for inviting the Bookbag to review Walking on Dry Land.

For more historical fiction on Angola look no further than Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares. You might also enjoy The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso.

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Buy Walking on Dry Land by Denis Kehoe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Walking on Dry Land by Denis Kehoe at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Walking on Dry Land by Denis Kehoe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Walking on Dry Land by Denis Kehoe at Amazon.com.


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