An American diplomat in Tanzania during the Cold War confronts her moral reservations about big-game poaching in this historical novel.
Diana Forrest returns to diplomatic work after an extended hiatus. She left her previous post to marry a “hot shot foreign correspondent,” but the relationship ultimately failed. She accepts a new job as a foreign service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, which, during this era, amounts to engaging in a battle with Soviet operatives to disseminate successful political narratives among the locals. But her attention is also gripped by the feral world of safaris and of a savanna full of volatile predators—it’s a world that both terrifies and excites her and one that novelist Sharpe (Undertow, 2014, etc.) stirringly depicts. Andrew, her subordinate at work, is a veteran tour guide and gives Diana her first experience with the Tanzanian wild. But he’s also an enthusiastic hunter, and she wrestles with her misgivings about the recreational slaughter of animals. At one point, she reports her moral dilemma to a friend when Andrew asks her to drive on one of his expeditions: “I don’t know what to do. My conscience resists. Yet, driving or not, I’ll be eating the bush meat, so what’s the difference?” It turns out that big-game poaching, especially for ivory to be sold on the black market, is ubiquitous, and she suspects that Andrew may be involved in a smuggling operation. The situation becomes even more complicated as a romantic relationship flowers between them.
Sharpe deftly braids together two interlocking storylines that deal, respectively, with the ungovernable Tanzanian bush and the tangled world of political bureaucracy. The author writes from a deep reserve of personal experience—like the book’s protagonist, she was an foreign service officer in Tanzania—and that knowledge endows the narrative with a sense of authenticity. The diplomatic storyline provides readers with an engrossing look into the world of strategic misinformation; for example, the Soviets are said to have once spread propaganda that the AIDS virus was created in a laboratory in Maryland. Also, Sharpe’s buoyant, cheeky prose memorably captures Diana’s illicit relationship with Andrew, who’s not only a colleague, but a married man: “We managed like lovers in a French farce, exercising extreme vigilance to avoid comical hallway encounters with people we knew—the complication being that, between us, we knew most every one at the conference.” Diana is revealed as an intriguing mix of contradictions—a savvy political operative who’s also romantic and who’s fiercely independent but achingly lonely. Diana is also clearly taken by Andrew; at one point, she fretfully wonders if she’s “become a Cold-War propagandist in bed with petty poachers.” The story’s most tantalizing element is its moral aspect, as it interrogates the defensibility of hunting amoral beasts with great nuance without a hint of dogmatic proselytizing. Overall, this is a thoughtful, provocative tale that, in the spirit of Iris Murdoch’s work, raises urgent questions while also resisting facile answers.
A shrewdly written and intellectually arousing tale.