The conflicted love life and intellectual life of a woman coming to maturity in the ’90s is juxtaposed with her imagined account of the experiences of 19th-century British explorer—and author of Travels in West Africa—Mary Kingsley.
Virginian Lily Austin, daughter of two successful stage actors, drifts through college vaguely planning to act or write, eventually falling for her roommate’s charismatic half-brother Tyler Harrison, and, after their marriage, moving with him to the Mississippi home of their family, the Galatierres. Simultaneously, Lily researches the Victorian adventuress’s exploits, plans a play about Kingsley, writes “letters” to her in an ongoing journal, and dreams, as it were, the latter’s history. These Victorian materials then alternate with the lengthy processes whereby Lily discovers Tyler’s emotional and marital failings and the truth about the paternity of her baby daughter (named, inevitably, Mary), then strikes out on her own determined to become a woman as independent as her 19th-century idol. Only some of this works. The chapters focused on Mary Kingsley tell the increasingly absorbing story of a “spirited” woman who shrugs off her culture’s ideas about woman’s proper place and makes increasingly dangerous trips to the Canary Islands, Sierra Leone, and the African mainland, encountering patronizing males, locusts, hungry crocodiles, jungle fever, and worse, finally journeying further southward (and proclaiming, in a passage in Lily’s play spoken after her death, that “I came down to Cape Town, in South Africa, to die”). The problem is that Kingsley’s heroic struggles with her culture’s chauvinism and sexism do not in any credible way resemble Lily’s soap-operatic stumbling toward fulfillment. The two women’s stories thus neither mirror each other nor thematically connect, as Bausch obviously intends.
Still, Bausch’s expansive, and somewhat exhausting, ninth novel (after In the Night Season, 1998) is a bold attempt at something different, and, as such, his most interesting thus far.