Africans and Westerners wrestle with sickness, culture clash, and the turmoil of decolonization in these richly imagined stories.
Barnes (Jane Among Friends, 2017, etc.), who worked for the Peace Corps in Africa, sets his tales in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and other newly independent West African countries in the early 1960s as expatriates, villagers, bureaucrats, and beggars cope with the ferment of change. In “Getting to Bo,” an American builder has to choose between his efforts to keep his construction project on schedule and the pressing needs of a sick diamond miner. “The Legend of Death’s Staircase” follows an affluent expat couple, whose tidy marriage is shadowed by a tropical disease, as they’re drawn to the sinister remains of a slave market. Other tales feature a newly minted Nigerian official who takes over a government credit union from a British administrator, setting off a nerve-wracking turf battle among bureaucrats and politicians; a beggar afflicted with leprosy who struggles to get food in a world where every man’s hand is turned against him; and a villager that takes advantage of a missionary’s generosity by reselling malaria pills on the black market, leading to a crisis of betrayal and redemption. And in the title story, a beautiful young woman gets a mysterious illness, causing the Westerners around her—a priest, a doctor, a Canadian wanderer—to evaluate their relationships with her and their attitudes toward African culture. Barnes’ atmospheric yarns feel like a Graham Greene novel with aid workers instead of spies. He writes evocative descriptions of landscapes and village scenes peopled with a Shakespearean cast, from chiefs drenched in carefully calculated dignity to half-dead panhandlers to African and Western strivers tangled in bonds of mutual need and hostility, all illuminated by Barnes’ ability to fill a single sentence with a world of social and psychological nuance. (“Mrs. Flint wept harder; not the way his woman would weep, but as if she would rather burst than emit any sound,” an African man observes of a distraught white woman.) The result is a fine panorama of a complex, exotic yet startlingly familiar place.
A superb collection full of color and subtle explorations of character.