Short-fiction writer Kai draws on her experiences in Tanzania to debut with an eerily honest story of adolescent obsession that conjures up Nabokov even as it offers a fresh and grounded view of East Africa.
Through the eyes of 14-year-old Tatum, on her first visit to Dar es Salaam and in the bosom of her wealthy family—brother, sister, mom, and stepdad—what’s exotically other and what’s hers to manipulate quickly become indistinguishable. Practically from her first sight of Mo, her stepdad Jack’s Indian bachelor friend, Tatum has romantic designs. Fueled by the advice columns of Cosmopolitan and big sis Mona’s own mooning over their driver Salim, roiled by her fantasies and by having seen Jack enter a whorehouse, she plots the stages of Mo’s seduction with consummate care even as she copes with emotional turbulence. A swimming encounter allows him to see her as more than just the “little girl” he dismissed her as to his sister, and a club party offers the perfect opportunity for Tatum to act: dressed to kill in a short black number she insisted her mother buy for her, she gets Mo to dance, and his hard-on tells her he’s paying attention. From there it’s simply a matter of getting the family to leave her behind for a week after they go home—in the care of Jack’s good buddy Mo, of course (who still lives with his mother)—and then pouring it on whenever she gets a chance. The part where romance turns to raw sex still isn’t clear to her, but no matter: Tatum will not be denied.
Africa is more than window-dressing here, and the workings of Tatum’s mind are wonderfully, if exhaustively, revealed in all their blooming, buzzing confusion.