Memoirist Walker (Baby Love, 2007, etc.) makes her fiction debut with a short, sad tale of love that flowers but cannot take root in Kenya.
Traveling in Africa, the unnamed American narrator feels “less and less like an outsider, and more like someone fated to be in this new place.” (She appears to be the child of a black woman and a Jewish man.) On the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya, she meets Adé, a Swahili Muslim man who gives her the Arabic name Farida after they fall blissfully in love. They decide to marry, Adé takes her to meet his mother, and Farida applies herself to learning island ways, from making a fire to covering herself in public. (Her enthusiastic embrace of tradition makes the lyrical descriptions of their lovemaking somewhat jarring, since this would have been forbidden.) When the community decrees that the couple must go to America to ask her parents’ permission to marry, Farida’s illusion that she truly belongs shatters on the bus ride to the Kenyan capital to apply for Adé’s passport. Leaping up to protest against the soldiers who board and matter-of-factly begin to pocket the passengers’ valuables, she feels a gun pressed against her cheek; Adé rescues her, but Farida’s American invulnerability is gone. Her alienation is further reinforced by dealing with corrupt officials and callous hospital staff after she comes down with malaria and meningitis. Readers know from the novel’s first page that Farida and Adé are no longer together, so it’s no surprise when they learn there is only one seat on the plane to take her to the States for treatment. Still, it’s again jarring to be told “I never saw him again,” with no further elaboration. Walker obviously intends this to be a poetic account of a long-ago idyll, but readers simply don’t know enough to credit her assertion that “In Adé’s sturdy arms…I became myself.”
Too sketchily developed to fully succeed as a novel, though the prose is gorgeous.