Originally published in England, Finn’s promising debut novel intertwines the story of a rootless young woman’s return to Kenya after her estranged father’s death with the history of her parents’ unhappy life in mid-20th century East Africa.
Without hesitation, Ellie leaves Peter, the loving man with whom she lives in New Mexico, to return to Nairobi, where she stands to inherit her father John’s sizeable estate. In Africa, she reaches out to her parents’ acquaintances in an effort to gather information about the crimes she believes John committed. Ellie’s childhood memories of her father, with whom she lost contact as a child after she and her mother Helen left Kenya, are of a vicious drunk who beat her and carried on an affair with a troubled neighbor. The servants once showed little Ellie the neighbor’s dead body and claimed John was the murderer. As an adult, she still considers her father a murderer even as she begins to learn more about his complex life. Ellie eventually tracks down the dead woman’s husband, an elderly doctor, who convinces her that her father was in no way responsible for his wife’s suicide. In coming to understand her father’s demons, Ellie recognizes how she has avoided emotional commitment herself. Interspersed with Ellie’s version of events is the tragedy of John and Helen. Theirs is the Africa of fading British power—servants, corruption, petty politics and lots of drinking. The couple’s early love degenerates as John, decent but troubled, tries unsuccessfully to control his alcoholism. Helen leaves him, not because he’s had an affair, but because she can no longer bear the burden of his neediness.
More Graham Greene than Doris Lessing, Finn writes with cool detachment and is best in recreating life among the fading colonialists.