TEFUGA by Peter Dickinson


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With the help of his mother's journal, a British journalist searches deep into the past to discover the secret of his parents' life together in Africa; an off-day for the admirable English writer Dickinson (Death of a Unicorn, The Last Houseparty, etc.). Nigel Jackland arrives in Nigeria to film a kind of docudrama about his parents, Ted and Betty Jackland. Sixty years before, in 1923, Ted was the District Officer at Kiti, in Northern Nigeria, responsible for the Kitawa tribe, and Betty was his new bride, some 20 years younger, who had just arrived to join him. Chapters of her engaging journal alternate with far less engaging chapters from the present, while Nigel attempts to understand why his parents' marriage failed, and why his father committed suicide. Betty's journal describes her life among the Kitawa, her painting--the natives thought her pictures were juju, or powerful magic--and her relationships with Elongo, a young houseboy she teaches to speak English, and with Femora Feng, a powerful woman who allows her to paint the ceremonies of the Kitawan women. Betty's life in Africa ends in tragedy when the British help oust the corrupt local emir and try to replace him with a young man at a ceremony on Tefuga Hill--the Kitawan women, led by Femora Feng, literally tear the boy apart and nearly cause a riot. Having discovered she's pregnant with Nigel (British civil servants weren't allowed to raise children in certain foreign postings), she leaves Africa for good. Ted remains and some time later shoots himself, never having seen his son. Back in the present, Nigel's efforts to complete his film are hampered by a military coup, but he befriends the aging Elongo (now a tribal leader) and helps him escape, although not before putting the pieces together and learning that Elongo, far from being a faithful houseboy, was a spy for Femora Feng, and had helped bring about the Tefuga Hill disaster that had effectively ended Ted Jackland's career. Worse, Elongo had hidden Betty's journal in Ted's belongings (instead of burying it, as she'd asked on leaving Nigeria), and certain revelations therein had helped bring about Ted's suicide. As in the far more succesful Death of a Unicorn and The Last Houseparty, Dickinson is attempting to mesh past and present to solve a mystery, but while the past here simmers with color and suspense, the present (especially the shallow, unlikable Nigel and his hackneyed docudrama) is thoroughly unengaging. In effect: half a novel, although half a novel from a writer as talented as Dickinson may be better than none.

Pub Date: April 21st, 1986
Publisher: Pantheon