This is one of those novels in which two things are true, for me: I recognize how great the writing is, and the elegance of the story – it’s objectively a really great book. And, also, for me, this was not really a story that I felt interested in consistently. I think that it was the war stories that made me less interested in this story overall – I’m not really interested in reading about men’s experiences in a war, even when written by someone gifted and placed within the context of a larger story. Not that this is a book that is just about war – it’s about searching for lost loved ones, and building a family / finding love in the face of terror and agony and even smaller mischief in life. I can appreciate how special it is to read a book about finding beauty in painful places – and still, I couldn’t feel fully connected to or invested in this book.
Part of the problem may also have been the pacing. The novel shifts focus so often, moving at a plodding pace at some points, and then speeding up dramatically at others, careening towards an end that feels both poetic and also abrupt. There’s connection between the characters, but I always felt as though the novel might move in another direction – and the shifts did not necessarily feel plot driven, or surprising in what I think of as “good” ways.
Right, so you have my feelings about the book – but don’t let that discourage you from potentially enjoying the great writing! This is a novel set in East Africa at the turn of the 20th Century. Germany and Britain are fighting for control over what they see as the colonies – all while the people who have lived there find themselves used as pawns. Ilyas was stolen from his family and moved across the continent, raised with a German colonizer. He eventually returns to his home village where he discovers that his parents are dead and his sister, the baby he never really knew, was sent away to live with a couple who have treated he like a slave. He lives with her for a short period of time, but war intercedes, and her rescue is short lived. The story jumps and we read on from the perspective of Hamza, a man far too delicate for war. Eventually, their lives intersect. There’s descriptions of time during war, brutal beatings, men on the come-up as they grow business as merchants in a small African town in Tanzania. For a book with so many lovely moments, I don’t know why I struggled to enjoy reading it so much.