African-American Haulsey takes on female circumcision, tribal customs, and women’s rights in Africa—in an overwrought debut about a Kenyan woman’s bumpy road to selfhood.
The tale, narrated in flashbacks by Nasarian, a member of the Samburu tribe who’s now living in New York, is told in strained prose—flies “dance blissfully,” gray skin is like “dying marble or wilted stones,” and there’s a “richly woven baluster of song.” Intent on describing a particular society and its ills—polygamy, tribalism, and mob justice (at least two men are “necklaced”)—Haulsey overloads his narrative with actions meant to be illustrative. Nasarian first recalls the death of her Somali mother, who was captured by relatives avenging a Somali attack and given to her father to be his latest wife. After her death, the other wives insisted that Nasarian’s uncles—men make all these decisions—send her away to live with Lalasi, a cousin. There, she grew close to his nine-year-old daughter Nasieku, a beautiful little girl. Within months Nasieku was circumcised so that she could marry a rich chief whose bride price bought her father a Mercedes. Infected by the dirty instruments, Nasieku soon came home to die. The grieving Nasarian studied hard, graduated, and moved to college in Nairobi, determined to be a writer, not a wife who would be subject to a man’s authority. A member of a despised tribe (many Kenyans think the Samburu are backward) and lonely, she took a white lover, then fell for Augustin, the college janitor and a fellow Samburan. Awarded a scholarship to Columbia University, she discovered that she was not only pregnant but that Augustin was already married. When Augustin was mistakenly necklaced by a Nairobi mob, Nasarian was left on her own, but strong and talented enough to survive
Despite the clearly evident sincerity, disappointingly unaffecting.