A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa by Elaine Neil Orr

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A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa by Elaine Neil Orr

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A fictionalised account of Victorian missionaries in Africa with a welcome original lilt. The Africans also have a voice (and rightly so) creating a whole new level of insight.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Berkley - US
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0425261309

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Emma Davis, daughter of a Georgian plantation owner has never been happy about the slave system. People just shouldn't be owned like merchandise. Whenever possible she slinks away to hear African stories from elderly slave Uncle Eli, sparking her imagination and love for a far off continent about which she's determined to do more than dream. Emma is going to theological college and she will be a missionary out there. Her resolve pays off when she meets and marries Henry, clergyman and missionary to Yoruba. Once there Emma discovers a local culture richer and more rewarding than she imagined, but, then again, so is the cost.

When Elaine Neil Orr, Professor of English at North Carolina State University, came across the African diaries of missionary couple Lurana Davis Bowen and Thomas Jefferson Bowen, her latent curiosity and fascination took over. The source of this interest wasn't what they said but what they didn't. For instance diary entries like Feelings deeply wounded' just sat there; no context, no explanation. Elaine couldn't prevent her imagination from filling in the gaps and it's that urge to colour in the diaries' outline and the research that went with it that led to this enthralling story; a debut novel about a couple who not only had a faith to evangelise, but a respect for those they were led to serve.

I will elaborate (you know me!) but first a plea: please don't judge the novel by the early chapters. To begin with A Different Sun seems like an average 'hist fict', or maybe even a little less as it jumps from one thing to another. But, just like The Wizard of Oz movie turning from monotone to colour, once Henry and Emma arrive in Africa, it's not just a different sun, it's a different book; one of excellence.

We not only learn about 19th century missionaries but also 19th century Yorubans. Through this couple's eyes we see a world of marvellous culture rather than the less politically correct clichéd Victorian view of a land populated by savages. Is this imbuing of an almost modern multi-cultural outlook part of Elaine's imagining rather than historical fact? To be honest, it doesn't matter to me whether fact or fiction. This outlook provides the novel with a platform on which a continent that seemed more advanced than the 'civilised' world believed can be shown off to good effect.

There's no need to be put off by the religious angle; this is a novel for all faiths and none. Yes, there are moments when Henry tries to evangelise the local tribes but these are balanced by an insider's view of the local customs, tribal outlook and the hardships of people (of both sides of the continental divide) displaced from their home.

For those who of us as interested in theology as we are history there are some great snippets providing intriguing glimpses into Victorian biblical interpretation. For instance, Emma's belief that the poor are blessed because they need more mercy says a lot for the time, even if it may grate these days.

Once we're into the story, the entire cast of the novel are people rather than cut-outs, and people to whom we warm and feel happily compelled to follow. After all, isn't this the essence of a good read? Exactly!

If you'd like to read more about the southern states' slave trade and the people caught up in it, we recommend Soul Catcher by Michael White.

Buy A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa by Elaine Neil Orr at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa by Elaine Neil Orr at Amazon.co.uk.

Buy A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa by Elaine Neil Orr at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa by Elaine Neil Orr at Amazon.com.


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Elaine Neil Orr said:

Thank you so much for this wonderful review that I just fell upon! All best wishes, Elaine