Monday, April 23, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“ECHOES FROM A DISTANT LAND” by Frank Coates (Harper/Collins, $NZ39:99)
As a reviewer, I am always bound to consider books according to their genre and their intended audience before I dive in and give my personal and subjective reaction. I have never been under the delusion that all books are designed to appeal to my tastes. Likewise, I accept that competent judges can come to conclusions quite different from my own.

This throat-clearing is a delicate way of saying that, while I am sure there will be a large and appreciative audience for Echoes from a Distant Land, I know that I am not part of that audience.

Plot. On safari in Kenya in the very early twentieth century, a young Kikuyu man, Sam Wingaru, saves a rich American photographer from attack by a wild animal. In gratitude (and partly because he has repressed homosexual feelings for Sam), the rich American gives Sam pots of money and an American education. Sam returns to Kenya from the USA wealthy enough to be a businessman and horse-dealer, but not acceptable enough to penetrate the British colonial society that still rules Kenya as part of the empire.

Sam does, however, penetrate the sexually-promiscuous Lady Dana Northcote, who dallies alternately with him and with her dopey husband.

Result? By a gynaecological freak, Lady Dana gives birth to twins  - a black son, Jelani, and a white daughter, Emerald. Through various complications (I’m giving you only the barest of outlines here), Jelani gets to experience the growing independence movement in Kenya in the 1940s and 1950s, while Emerald experiences Mayfair, New York and increasing unease with her life of privilege.

They know nothing of each other’s existence until a Fateful Meeting.

Noting that I have not ruined the novel by giving this outline (there are plenty of twists and key events I haven’t mentioned), I hope you can see what is being offered to readers here – an incident-filled panorama of half a century of Kenyan history, from the high imperial age to independence.

It begins in 1906. It ends in 1963. It takes in the White Highlands of the 1920s (White Mischief-country), with wealthy British ranchers wife-swapping and snorting cocaine. It glances at Mau Mau and its initiation ceremonies and atrocities. It introduces Jomo Kenyatta as a minor character. It tells us about the differences between Kikuyu and Maasai. In other words, it gives us exactly those things that we’d expect to find in a bestseller about Kenya.

There is a string of exciting page-turning incidents, some of which seem to have strayed from a very antique school of bestseller-dom indeed. Not only a triumphant prize-winning horse-race, not only bloodshed and the last-minute dash that sustains the closing pages, but also - would you believe -  a scene with a gypsy fortune-teller and a scene where a talisman helps a mother to recognize her long lost son. And of course, especially in the central section of the story where Lady Dana gets preggers, there are four or five explicit bonking scenes just to show that it’s all thoroughly up-to-date and adult stuff.

Forgive my facetious tone. I never underestimate the power of a yarn and the skill it takes to spin one. While it has pretensions to be something more, the 500-plus pages of  Echoes from a Distant Land  are essentially a page-turning yarn which works competently on its own level and will doubtless please audiences who liked the same author’s six previous novels. An Australian by background and an engineer by training, Frank Coates has been a writer since 2004 and he specialises in pop novels with East African settings. He has a following.

Thus far I go discharging my duty in a sort of ‘book club” fashion. You now know what sort of novel Echoes from a Distant Land is and whether you’d be inclined to buy it or read it.

That task done, here is my own personal verdict.

As in so many airport-lounge novels, characters in this novel are psychologically-unconvincing and thin to the point of being stereotypes. They are really roles waiting for movie stars to flesh them out. The author may even have written them with movie stars in mind. Lady Dana seems intended to be a sympathetic character; but she is basically an air-head, who switches from rampant nympho to responsible and demure mother only because the melodramatic plot needs her to.

Given that it deals in part with race relations, colonial snobbery, Kenya’s struggle for independence, Mau Mau atrocities, British retaliation, and those Kenyans who hoped to forge a non-violent path, a part of the middlebrow audience may read Echoes from a Distant Land as a “serious” novel. After all, it deals with serious issues doesn’t it? (This would probably be the same audience that believes “You can learn more history from a novel than from a history book.”)

My problem here is that the form subverts the supposed content. Characters and dialogue neatly spell out the rather obvious themes.

            It was the institutionalised discrimination by the banks that got me angry” says Sam (Pg.211) after we’ve just been shown institutionalised discrimination by banks; and just in case we missed the message.

            You can’t imagine what it’s like to feel animosity aimed at you simply because of the colour of your skin” he says a few pages later (Pg.215), just in case we didn’t get that one either.

And so the dialogue patters on, improbably and self-expositorially, throughout the novel. The author is playing the familiar game of putting later historical judgements into the mouths of his characters and pretending they are credible dialogue for the story’s time and place. Interesting historical questions may be raised, but they are resolved in terms of melodrama.

In the end, the ethos of this novel (heck –  the ethos of most airport-lounge novels) is the ethos of those glossy 1950s Hollywood movies directed by Douglas Sirk or some such. Written on the Wind and its ilk. Expensive soaps in exotic locations in which glamorous people suffered while leading exciting and event-filled lives. Sophisticates snickered at their camp subtexts and the way they slyly subverted their own stories; but the masses took them at face value as grown-up drama. As it has no subtext, this novel does only the soap part of the deal.

But in terms of its political “message”, Echoes from a Distant Land  reminds me of another movie from the 1950s, Something of Value (I’ve never read the Robert Ruark bestseller on which that one was based). That, too, purported to deal with the Mau Mau uprising, but did so in a glib way intended not to offend anybody – and especially not to offend white and British viewers. If we are meant to see, in Echoes from a Distant Land, some sort of symbolism in the one mother having both black and white children, then it backfires very badly. The result is no more nor less than patronising to the novel’s (thin) African characters, and suggests that the attitudes of some writers haven’t moved on since the 1950s. The novel’s snarky and negative portrayal of Jomo Kenyatta confirms my view.

Footnote: The above comments are about a novel, not a work of history. I do know the difference. However, to restore some sense of reality about Kenya’s past, look up the very brief note on Histories of the Hanged on the index to the right of this  posting.      


  1. I am so delighted to have found your blog, and what a well written review, I found myself laughing almost hysterically when the white, then the black baby were delivered.
    To describe this book as a "penny dreadful" would be too complimentary. I think this author may have exhausted his "copy and paste" resources of the history of the British colonisation of East Africa.

  2. Thank you for your complimentary comments, Anonymous. I must admit that I had to re-read my own review (from nine months ago) to remember much of this forgettable pot-boiler, but, yes, you are right. it is cut-and-paste history as most so-called "historical novels' are.