“Professional mourner” Toloki (the protagonist of Mda’s Ways of Dying, 2002) makes his way to America in the versatile South African–born author’s colorful sixth novel.
Seeking new cultures to serve (since “the thrill of mourning was taken away by the sameness of the deaths I had to mourn on a daily basis”), Toloki arrives in 2004 in Kilvert, Ohio (near Athens), where by chance he becomes the house guest of Mahlon and Ruth Quigley, part of a motley community consisting of Caucasian, immigrant African and Native-American families. After inadvertently befriending the Quigley’s son Obed (who had committed an offensive Halloween prank), Toloki experiences the take-charge wrath of matriarch Ruth (a right-wing fundamentalist who adores President Bush), the virtually silent presence of Mahlon (a passive gardener who now “grows gnomes” and other decorative figures, instead of vegetables) and a burgeoning fascination with their daughter Orpah, a reclusive, sitar-playing beauty. The Quigleys’ story is then painstakingly connected to that of their ancestors: a complex tale of descent from Irish immigrants, miscegenation and enslavement, and the interpolated story of a gorgeous slave known as the Abyssinian Queen, who bore two sons to her white owner—and whose family’s history and destiny would subsequently be stitched into quilts created, first by the Queen, and, generations later, by the implacable Ruth. Mda (The Whale Caller, 2005, etc.) is at his matchless best when rendering both the stories “told” by the quilts (e.g., of the Queen’s sons Nicodemus and Abednego, runaway slaves who met diametrically different fates) and depicting the employment of the quilts (in accordance with African tradition) as “maps” guiding runaways to follow the North Star to freedom in (the earthly) “Canaan” (that is: Canada). The tale thus fashioned becomes an essential companion piece to such 20th-century masterpieces as Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon.
A stunning book—the great African writer’s great American novel.