A debut novel featuring a heroine with bipolar disorder, her tortured relationships, and the beautiful flora and fauna of Kenya.
Sarah and Peter, a wealthy, retired couple from California, have decided to treat themselves to a safari in Africa. At the last minute, however, they ditch an old-line travel company to instead go with the charismatic safari guide Max Einfield. However, during the safari, he’s nabbed for having expired papers and is detained at the notorious Nyayo House in Nairobi, controlled by imposing Kenyan functionaries. Most chapters begin with Sarah’s efforts to free Max and then flash back to the safari itself, which would have been idyllic except for the fact that Max took an inexplicable dislike to Sarah and that Peter was constantly needy, demanding, and irascible. Readers may find themselves fervently wishing that Sarah would strike back against both of them somehow, but she’s struggling with her own emotional problems, including a past suicide attempt, which allows the two men to bully her with impunity. The safari sights, however, prove to be spectacular, and Max does indeed know everything there is to know about animal behaviors. (He’s also a very charming man—except when he’s not.) The trio soon run across Brandon Howard, a world-famous nature photographer. He and Sarah hit it off immediately; clearly, they are soul mates. He pops up again and again during their travels, which is good for Sarah’s soul. Later, she stays on in Kenya by herself—a stay that stretches into weeks, with Sarah feeling increasingly happy and excited as the days go by. Finally, she’s convinced to return to California, where her trusted doctor diagnoses her with bipolar disorder.
There’s much to admire in St. John’s debut novel. She has real insight into her characters as well as a wicked talent for turning a phrase: “She found herself trying to please a woman who appeared to bite off satisfaction from her children in tiny morsels, then, finding them unpalatable, spat them out”; “Her pen moves ahead, becoming a small sailing vessel carried along a course determined not by the captain, but by the wind.” At one point, she describes antelope on a road as “bucking at one another like notes of a song rising and then colliding.” More experienced writers would love to have such a gift. And her character sketches of Max and Peter are spot-on: Every little bullying comment from Max and every childish demand from Peter speak volumes about them as people. Sarah’s sadness is poignant and palpable, particularly when she realizes that all the money that she spread around so lavishly in her manic state—to Max, to Brandon, to assorted others—is truly gone for good. Readers may have one cavil, however; it’s not easy to exit a plot and end a book, and what the author does, in this case, may delight some but leave others incredulous. On balance, though, St. John is a promising writer to be encouraged.
A very impressive, engagingly written first novel.