Athill, a veteran London editor who 25 years ago published the autobiography of a black American militant, offers an engrossing account of their friendship—an account written with the same openness that apparently characterized an earlier memoir (After a Funeral, 1984—not reviewed). Hakim Jamal was born Al Donaldson in 1933 Boston. An unloved child, he was a wino at 12, an addict at 14, and a convict at 20- -until hearing Malcolm X turned his life around. Hakim, meanwhile, was immensely attractive to women. His one marriage (to a distant cousin of Malcolm's) lasted long enough to produce six kids; what ended it was his tempestuous affair with the actress Jean Seberg. Soon afterward, in 1969, he met Athill. They hit it off immediately. Looking past his rhetorical bluster, she found ``a touchstone for kindness and honesty.'' They became friends and occasional lovers; 14 years his senior, Athill felt a primarily maternal love (with a ``delicious'' whiff of incest). Then she noticed signs of craziness. Hakim really believed he was God, as did his love-blind English mistress, HalÇ. The heart of Athill's story here is an electrifying, 48-hour, three-way confrontation provoked by Hakim's return to the States; Hakim accuses Athill of possessing HalÇ's body, and Athill sees that Hakim's ``kind and loving madness'' has a frightening side (though her fear soon passes). Athill concludes that Hakim ``had an acute natural intelligence...increasingly confused by psychological disturbance''—a disturbance that led her to break off work on Hakim's second book (about Seberg). His downward spiral continued; his death, back in Boston, was violent and meaningless. Athill's charm, and her power, lies in her refusal to censor herself. Her partial self-portrait is unflinching; her portrait of Hakim is devastating. High-quality work that lights up the first list of this brand-new house.
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