The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew J H Sharp
Winner of the Waverton Good Read Award 2009/2010
1983: Michael Lacey, a consultant surgeon is flying into Uganda to attend a medical conference. On the plane he struggles against his memories of a child buried in Africa, against his claustrophobia, and against the unwelcome conversation of his neighbouring passenger: a passenger apparently afflicted by a native curse.
Time-shift: 1958: Kaaro Karungi in the Rift Valley. The Beautiful Land is home to Stanley and Zachye (brothers) and their extended family. Having just about survived the rinderpest of a generation or two earlier, they are not wealthy, but they have cattle still. They hold to the old ways, marking the days not by watch-time, but by the unvarying events of the day: the cock-crow, the dawn, the taking cattle to feed, taking cattle to water, returning cattle home, evening meal, social time and so on. They take pride in their animals. They honour their family and their ancestors and tell the old stories.
Stanley, the younger brother, is about seven or eight when it is decided that he will receive The Education. This isn't about the skills and ways of his people; those he has been learning since birth. The Education is the way of the Bazungu: the white people. Stanley is to be taught to read, and write, and all manner of science and business. It is an honour.
An honour he feels should rightly have gone to his elder brother.
Zachye might feel that way too.
Meanwhile, not too far away, Michael Lacey is blessed by God. A child of missionary parents he has the true belief of one who has never had cause to question: except when it comes to question of the diamonds and the yearned for Zephyr-6 in which he envisages his father winning the East African Safari Rally. Of course, there is no suggestion that his father harbours such an ambition…
In their childhood Michael and Stanley almost meet, but fate has other ideas. They continue to grow up in their own worlds. It will be years before their life-paths fatally cross and entwine around a beautiful woman.
In the meantime those childhood worlds share the same grasslands, but are light years apart. They are worlds that are changing, hurtling towards each other. The West as we euphemistically call it took a long time infiltrating Africa. The dark continent resisted as long as she could, holding to her own values and rejecting ours. Even a century of colonial rule did little to shift the intrinsic nature of life beyond the hill stations and missionary quarters. By the 1960s and 70s, though, the ramparts were being shaken. Improved communication, consumerism and globalisation of business would succeed where force and religion had failed. Ugandans were looking to their own future and seeing that they could no longer rely on isolation. If that was the way the world was going, they wanted a share. They had to start making choices.
History shows that not all of the choices proved to be happy ones.
The repressive years of rule by Idi Amin are not the focus of Sharp's story however. He skips them in his telling – although their reality becomes important in the nature of the characters that survive them. This is not a war story. It is a love story.
Love in the broad sense.
That it becomes a love story in the romantic sense, eventually, is simply a twist of plot that could easily and just as satisfyingly have gone a different way. The real love that shines through is the love of family and place. Both Stanley and Michael become displaced children – for the best of reasons: being sent away to school – but displaced none the less. One chooses to return as close to his heritage as he can manage; the other needs to reject it. Ultimately, they will both discover that there are ties that bind, and they will be acknowledged.
In a completely different book I read recently another author spoke of the power of your first home. Sharp doesn't put it so obviously, but it lurks behind every word. His descriptions of Uganda are vivid, lyrical, painful and yearning. They ache with the loss of what was good and has gone, and they ache for could be good, what should be, but hasn't (even yet) arrived. His "author note" to the book speaks of first hand experience of the geography and history of his setting – he'd have been some researcher indeed to have to come to this rendition without it.
Each of his characters, even the minor bit-players who pass through, is whole and alive. The Diviner, the Aunties, the out-of-water socialites surviving on gin and bridge, the fervent missionaries, the Indian shopkeepers, and bemused indigenous minor officials could all have been mere cyphers, but Sharp gives each their fifteen minutes, each becomes alive and genuine, with successes and failures written on the faces we can only imagine.
Political and social reality don't stalk the pages of Ghosts, but they do lie in wait. Amin's devastation is inevitable from the outset and plays its part in the denouement as does the other horror to have laid the country waste in recent decades. As in life, so in the story, these things only come to the forefront, when a person's personal story is affected by them. Otherwise they are shut away. Buried. Like that child that Michael ponders in his claustrophobic descent, sitting next to a corpse, to the tarmac.
The Ghosts of Eden is not for those who want their Africa packaged in heart of darkness colours. It is not an adventure story. Violence intrudes more than once, but for all its turning point malevolence, is never the whole point. Ghosts grips the reader subtly, by force of personality: the personality of the main players, and also of the place itself. A stunningly haunting debut.
I'd like to thank the author for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
For a completely different take on a childhood impinging into adulthood, this time with Cyprus as the backdrop, try the book alluded to in this review: Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne.
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