Another scathingly funny look at the bizarre social and psychological landscape of his native South Africa from Whitbread winner and Booker short-listee Hope (Darkest England, 1996, etc.).
The central, towering figure is Kathleen Healey, a pilot and big-game hunter born shortly after World War I who swaggers across Africa with the panache of the colonizing generation that took the continent as its personal playground. She won’t even tell her son Alex, the novel’s narrator, who his father is. Maintaining idiosyncratic friendships with everyone from an Afrikaner secret policeman to the Rain Queen of the Lebalola people, Kathleen is equally out of place in the race-obsessed South Africa run by religious bigots and in the post-apartheid nation racked by crime and AIDS. She’s magnificently clueless about everything except her own pleasures and the people she chooses to love, though her swashbuckling resume of her beloved Johannesburg’s past (“We don’t have a history, really…Just a police record.”) nails the wide-open frontier town where her father made his fortune laying dynamite in gold mines. Quiet, uneasy Alex takes a less romantic view of their homeland, seeing it as a place of cruelty and malevolent fantasy, where white people once imagined themselves the lords of the universe and black politicians now play the same corrupt power games as those they displaced. He just wants to get away from it all, selling air-conditioning units all over the Far East, until his mother’s death brings him home for a reckoning with her and the “lovers” (not all of them male sexual partners) to whom she’s made a few pointed bequests for Alex to execute. Hope paints a broad canvas teeming with vigorous characters; his political commentary is fresh, biting and deeply cynical. The moving final pages show Alex still in thrall to the magic of Africa and his mother, decry their lies and failures though he may.
Intelligent, tough-minded and surprisingly tender: a portrait of Africa that both convinces and provokes.