Elegant, elegiac novel from publisher/writer Lawrence (Montenegro, 1997, etc.), set in a dangerous time and place.
The Peace Corps does it all the time, but it’s an enterprise fraught with peril for an innocent youngster to enter places torn by violence, greed and cynicism. Take Sierra Leone, for example, where the blood-diamond trade has its epicenter—and where child soldiers and rapist militiamen and particularly unpleasant warlords run amok in the countryside. Nora Fenton could not be more innocent when she arrives there, intending to do good. A born liberal arts major (“She would start Ulysses some other time, but not today”), she falls in love at every turn, usually with young women, as if to forestall experiencing the illness and loss that are descending on loved ones far away. Less innocent is the young man who loves Nora in turn, a would-be writer and stamp collector (with some echoes of John Fowles perhaps intended in his makeup), and who is a born—well, embellisher of the truth, certainly an unreliable witness and chronicler of events and perhaps, we sense at the beginning of Lawrence’s story, with not a little darkness in his own heart. Lawrence wisely begins his tale at the end, after a fashion: A tragedy has occurred, but how deeply it cuts remains to be explored. And explore it he does, with subtle language that suggests the complexity of the scene in which Nora and company find themselves (“The second item was the matter of the boy, Morlai, who had been introduced as her rapist and had morphed, in a subsequent letter, into her trusted companion”). Ranks with the best of Norman Rush in its sensitive but still controversial portrait of African turmoil as experienced by those unequipped to escape it.
Emotionally honest, beautifully written.