Year published: 2007
Setting & time: (mostly) a small village in Kenya, 2003.
An American librarian goes to Kenya to help start up a mobile library, carried on camel-back, to bring books to remote villages out in the bush. One day two books are not returned in a tiny nomadic settlement, Mididima, and knowing that unless they are returned the library will stop going to that particular village, the American goes alone to the village to try to persuade the borrower to return them. The village is in conflict about the library: some value it for the promise of literacy and window on the outside world it has brought to the village, while others fear that it heralds the destruction of the tribe’s culture. All of them, however, want to return the missing books because it affects the tribe’s honour and some believe that if honour is lost, disaster will befall the tribe.
This novel brings up some interesting and important questions about the value of literacy and the value of tradition and how they can come into conflict with one another. Some of the people of Mididima appreciate the library for the window it gives them on the outside world (one even dreams about going away for teacher training and coming back to teach the others), but one really has to ask oneself about the usefulness of a book on how to survive an avalanche for a people who have never seen snow. Others fear that all those books about far-away places will make the people yearn for a different lifestyle, bring strange and disturbing customs into the village, possibly even drain away it’s young people, destroy the culture and kill the language, since all the books are either in English or Swahili, and none exist in the language spoken by the Mididima tribe.
Central to the story are the missing books, a perfect MacGuffin with which to drive the narrative, but the side stories are no less interesting. All are skilfully woven together into a flowing and interesting narrative. Other reviewers have accused Hamilton of not resolving the story properly, and it is true that she could have written neat little endings for all concerned, tied up with bows (coloured pink or black, depending on whether they belong to the happy-ending clan or the ‘everyone must die at the end’ brigade), but she chooses to go for a realistic ending that allows the readers, to a certain extent, to make up their own endings for the characters.
Hamilton alters the point of view between chapters, so that we see the story unfolding through the eyes of several characters: the American librarian, the head librarian of the project, the village teacher and his wife, a young girl and her grandmother, the teenage boy who refuses to return the books and his father. Each brings something important to the story. I like it that Hamilton does not fall into the trap of making the tribespeople seem less (less sophisticated, less intelligent, etc.) than the white woman or the educated Africans, merely different in their outlook and thinking, and how she uses the character of the village teacher to bridge the gap of understanding between Fiona and the tribespeople.
The writing style is simple and clear and this book feels almost like a young adult novel, not just the simple use of language but also the way the story is told. This is not to say that it’s a simple story – it certainly isn’t, not with all the questions it asks about culture, education and human relations.
Rating: An interesting novel that will (or should) make you think. A good read. 4 stars.