"With impressive scope and flourishes of magical realism, the book transcends what might seem to be mundane storylines to instead feel fully epic."– Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious novel concludes Wentling’s (Africa’s Release, 2014) African trilogy.
Letivi, chief of the Ataku village, is faced with a modern dilemma: wealth disparity is growing in the village between those families who have sent children to work in Europe (who then send money back home to their families) and those who have not. Letivi’s goal of correcting this problem via a wealth-sharing agreement among the villagers is hindered by his own lack of a wife or child; as a clan leader says, “Chief Letivi is without a wife or children and thus knows little about the lives we live as we struggle to support our families.” Letivi, a light-skinned half-caste, is also burdened by the secrets of his own parentage: he is the son of Bobovovi, an American Peace Corps volunteer chosen by the moon god and consumed by a sacred baobab tree 20 years before. A hemisphere away, a newspaper reporter named Robin is tracking down a mysterious man named J.D., whose disappearance shocked the town of Gemini, Kansas, and whose trail will lead Robin all the way to Africa. Destinies converge, and the generational saga that Wentling began in Africa’s Embrace arrives at its conclusion. Wentling, an American, admits in the introduction that the book (and the whole trilogy) is based on his four-decade career in Africa, and indeed, the works concern themselves with more than literary pursuits. Logistical issues affecting rural Africa—sustainable farming, education, the evolving role of the village, etc.—are raised in considerable detail, and the activist’s call to awareness is ever present at the periphery. As a novel, the prose tends toward the simple and declarative, though the details of village life and the inclusion of village folklore are immersive enough to lend emotional believability to characters and their actions. Readers of the previous two books will feel a fuller connection to the history of this world (and they’ll be more forgiving of the concluding volume’s 522-page length), yet there’s enough here for the work to stand on its own. With impressive scope and flourishes of magical realism, the book transcends what might seem to be mundane storylines to instead feel fully epic.
A satisfying novel of interconnectedness and community.
An American diplomat assigned to war-ravaged Somalia struggles to comprehend its interminable troubles.
Ray Read’s career in the U.S. Foreign Service seems permanently stalled. He is sent to serve in Somalia, a country whose history and culture he knows virtually nothing about. Greeted enthusiastically by Ambassador Overholster when he arrives, Read is almost immediately thrust into the Byzantine and contentious negotiations that define Somalia’s political life. He discovers a nearly ungovernable nation cleaved by internecine conflict and a litany of warring tribal factions. Read needs to broker a peace between the two most powerful warlords, Aidid and Mahdi, for any progress to be made, but he can’t even get them in the same room. In addition, the ancient acrimony between Somalia and Ethiopia haunts the country’s prospects for peace. Read is initially assigned to a committee devoted to rehabilitation and reconstruction. But his early success wins him a promotion (albeit, an unwanted one) to the disarmament and security committee, charged with a much more daunting mission, compelling Read to mingle with all manner of unsavory types. He quickly becomes a minor celebrity of sorts because of his tenacity and light touch but struggles to understand Somalia’s apparently intractable problems. Meanwhile, he takes a short holiday to Kenya, where he strikes up a romance with a young, beautiful local. In his book, Wentling (Africa’s Heart, The Journey Ends in Kansas, 2015, etc.) shows that he’s a masterful researcher, and his exhaustive command of Somalia’s complex challenges remains admirable. He paints a lively—though appropriately grim—tableau of its extraordinary ailments. But the reader is left with a multitude of questions about the story’s protagonist. Read dominates the narrative while turning out to be little more than a cipher in the unfolding political drama. Readers discover he has marital problems, though not much more than that, and they know little about his motivations for becoming a diplomat in the first place. The plot marches toward the climactic “black hawk down” debacle without providing much insider insight. This is an exceptional piece of political analysis—both thorough and nuanced—but unsatisfying as a human drama.
A wonderful account of Somalia’s troubles that fails to deliver a fully developed protagonist.
As Wentling’s (Dead Cow Road, 2017, etc.) fifth novel opens, Juan Eduardo de Mejia begins sharing personal lifetime memories with the rat he’s named “Savior” who lives in his jail cell walls.
Set in the mid-20th century, Juan gushes about being the son of distinguished, respected physician Don Ernesto Tomás Mejia, who’d saved a poverty-stricken community from certain doom when catastrophic floodwaters saturated their homeland of Sinoteca decades earlier. A local hero, his father also rose to prominence as the leader of their rebuilt city. Wentling writes his narrative with an uncanny urgency as Juan’s life plays out over a series of flashbacks and vividly described scenes, including Sinoteca’s rich history and Don Ernesto’s marriage to Elena Portillo Del Campo, Juan’s mother. As his history is revealed, Juan confesses that his birth caused the tragic death of Elena, a woman “he never knew but idolized.” Even after falling into a trauma-induced coma, his father became nominated to run for president of their home country, Catrasia. Wentling’s novel is well-paced, assuredly written, and cleverly plotted: Juan’s jail sentence is left unexplained until the final third of the book. The protagonist recounts further the story of his childhood: He was raised by a foster family in the elevated mountainous region surrounding Sinoteca and renamed Antonio Gomez to shield him from his father’s political enemies. In adulthood, Juan/Antonio becomes a beloved schoolteacher, then relocates to the Sinoteca Valley, where he becomes an ally to the impoverished populace there and a witness to the region’s simmering social injustices. His advocacy on behalf of the indigent citizens and defiance against Sinoteca’s new dictatorship becomes violent and lands Juan/Antonio in prison as the novel comes full circle with a particularly satisfying grace and balance. Though Wentling waits until the final third of his tale to reveal the nature of his lonely protagonist’s destiny, readers will appreciate the narrative tension he cultivates and the strong sense of human rights leadership and sacrifice drummed up by his compellingly altruistic lead character.
An entertaining, uniquely constructed story of redemption, class warfare, and consequence, with themes both relevant and timely.