Award-winning journalist Emerson (Gaza, 1991, etc.) tries her hand at fiction with a story that draws on her knowledge of the Third World.
Like Graham Greene, a central if off-stage figure here, Emerson has spent significant time in such outposts of upheaval as Vietnam, the Gaza Strip, and, most recently, Algeria. Here, the protagonist, Molly Benson, is a wealthy, well-intentioned eccentric, obsessed with Greene and eager to do good. She met Greene once and corresponded with him for many years until his death in 1991. Molly’s brother, a leftist freelance journalist, was killed under mysterious circumstances in El Salvador. Now she’s preparing for the latest is a series of self-devised humanitarian missions: a trip to Algeria to give money to writers and intellectuals threatened by the Islamic fundamentalists engaged in a guerrilla war against the equally repressive “socialist” regime there. She’s accompanied by an unlikely pair—her lifelong friend, the childish Bertie, and Toby, a portly, loquacious English graduate student. Putting this trio into the volatile conditions in Algeria is a recipe for disaster and, naturally, each of their good deeds leads to torment for some unsuspecting victim of their largesse. If this sounds like one of Greene’s mordant fables of foolish innocents abroad, wreaking unintended havoc with their liberal good intentions, that’s obviously not an accident. Emerson invokes Greene repeatedly here, not only in Molly’s constant musings on his life and work but in her own stylish prose and satisfyingly sound plot construction. There are moments when the novel reads a little too much like a newspaper synopsis of the Algerian situation or a quickie recap of Greene’s major themes, but such lapses are mercifully few. And despite the temptation to reduce Molly to a caricature, Emerson never fails to convey the pain underneath her heroine’s fumbling goodwill.
An intelligent fiction debut by a capable writer.