Sellen’s debut novel interweaves a series of vignettes from across the globe to create a broad diorama of modern-day culture clashes.
Lacking a centralized plot, the narrative globe-trots from one place to the next, switching among characters and places that rarely share more than a distant connection. Key personages include a Colombian cab driver who sinks into a life of crime in an attempt to lift his family out of poverty; a pair of 20-something missionaries on a mission to Delhi; a French economist who cannot relate to the Latin American populations her bank supposedly benefits; and a conservationist stationed in Ivory Coast facing the twin hurdles of crime and corruption in his attempt to preserve a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These stories in turn branch out to incorporate an impressively varied, realistic cast of characters. All walks of life are represented, but mostly, as hinted by the title, the tales develop from the desperation generated within impoverished lands. The author states in his opening acknowledgments that the novel is loosely based on people he knew while living in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Due to this personal familiarity, even the occasional far-fetched or surreal event carries a certain authenticity. At one point, the conservationist witnesses a bizarre rainstorm that deposits fish and snakes across his lawn. He explains to his startled housekeeper, “It’s something to do with tornados[sp] when they go over water. They pick up water and everything in it and drop them in another place.” The fish-out-of-water construct serves many of the characters who seem to be struggling to breathe in scenarios that are either unfamiliar or insupportable. Though skillfully narrated, their individual trials would perhaps function better as discrete and consecutively told short stories rather than placed in this haphazardly shuffled arrangement.
Missing a unifying narrative but nonetheless an intimate, intercontinental voyage through a series of disparate lives.