An engineer’s quixotic rescue mission becomes a descent into West African hell.
Craig Allan Hammond, a light-skinned African-American, once built a decent road in the diamond country of Sierra Leone (lightly disguised here). He fell in love with a Katene woman, Oussumato, and she bore him a son, Abu, but refused to join him in the US. That was 16 years ago, before the child armies and the mutilations, and now 39-year-old Craig has returned, hoping war and privation may persuade Oussu where his own words could not. The rootless Craig is a figure from Graham Greeneland, though without the religious angst. He’s tired of odd jobs and trailers; his search for sweetheart and son is also a search for himself. His first stop is the former French colony next door, where he thinks they might be in a refugee camp. The camp, whose inhabitants are all waiting to die, is his first taste of hell. Craig finds relief in town, where a droll one-time diplomat, Claude Bayeh, steers him to another sophisticate, lodging-house keeper Madame Nettie. Newcomer Barnett keeps his storyline admirably taut, while the festive presences of Claude and Nettie give it dimension and depth. Even though Craig learns that Oussu’s village, Makokota, has been destroyed, he will not abandon his quest, so Claude arranges cross-border transportation into the “kill zone.” His traveling companion is Katya, a burnt-out Polish aid worker from the camp. Once over the border they enter a Conradian nightmare, complete with human heads on poles and bloodthirsty white mercenaries. Outside Makokota, Craig totals their truck and is badly hurt. At this point, Barnett loses his sure touch. Where before he had meshed the personal and the political, now Craig’s dilemma becomes all-consuming, as he endures a long fever dream and a hopeless odyssey through the bush. Yet a love of Africa burns bright through all the horror.
An impressive debut, despite its eventual unraveling.