Recently widowed, Mary Merskine heads out to a mountain lodge in Africa hoping to come to terms with the death of her husband, George. However, there are deeper issues surrounding his death that don’t make this easy and her search is hampered by ex-pats and the local staff of the lodge who bring a new set of challenges to her life. Amongst all these problems that arise, she must find some way of dealing with George’s death or else face returning to England and a life of misery.
John captures the essence of Africa and its healing power.
Robbie Cheadle –
The book starts with Mary Merskine, an older lady from the United Kingdom, travelling by car to a guest lodge in Africa. The driver, a young man named Caiaphas, stops on the way to the lodge to purchase supplies and Mary is accosted by a scary-looking beggar who gives her a fright. The beggar asks for money and Mary does not give him any. On the driver’s return, he gives the beggar a few coins which are received with thanks. This transaction makes Mary feel uncharitable and serves as the reader’s first insight into the nature of the local people who are generous towards each other and care for their own.
The reader learns that Mary has come to the lodge to manage it while the owner, a good friend from her younger days, is away caring for his critically ill mother. It is revealed that Mary’s husband had recently died, following a long degenerative illness. She has been abused and rejected by her neighbours after his death, but the reason for this negative behaviour is not revealed until near the end of the book. Mary is also estranged from her only son.
Life at the lodge is significantly different to life in a small town in the United Kingdom. There are some wonderful things: the surroundings are beautiful and peaceful although untamed and very natural, and the food, prepared by Solomon the cook, is delicious. Mary is waited on hand and foot by the lodge staff, including a young woman called Esther, who has a young baby. On the negative side, Mary’s closest female neighbour, Joyce, is a selfish, competitive woman, who treats her staff badly and is having an affair with an overbearing boar of a man named Pieter. Mary is introduced to the decadent and immoral lifestyle of Joyce and her compatriots, and it is a shock to her, especially as she is still overwhelmed with grief and loss.
Mary turns to a book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for distraction and solace. The book has a strange effect on her, and she starts acting out some of the odd experiences of the main character. These peculiar actions come to the attention of Caiaphas, who becomes attracted to Mary in a way that almost borders on obsession.
Mary needs to learn to deal with the staff at the lodge, her unpleasant neighbour and her acquaintances, as well as manage her on-going grief and fend off sexual advances by Pieter.
The character of Mary was interesting as she professed to love her husband and find it difficult to face life without him, but I didn’t get the impression he’d ever swept her off her feet or that it had been an intensely sexual relationship. In fact, I got the impression that her relationship had been quite staid and suppressive. She carried a lot of guilt and some of that may have been due to the fact that she was not passionate about her deceased husband as well as the circumstances surrounding his illness and death. As time passes and Mary grows from her new experiences at the lodge, she seems able to loosen the bonds of her narrow view on life a little. Mary gets to a point where she is able to appreciate difference and new experiences and look at letting go of what has passed and embracing new opportunities offered in her future.
This book is beautifully written and contains many delightful descriptions, a few of which are as follows:
“She had expected the heat, but not like this. The morning sun, unhindered by clouds, coiled its tentacles around her naked forearms in a clammy embrace, welcoming her to this new, strange clime.”
“Time was a lazy think in their world. It did not adhere to a strict timetable of seconds, minutes and hours. Time would take as long or as short as it needed in their world for things to happen and they all accepted this with ease.”
“A steady rumble of sound leaked through the window of the guest bedroom, a nasal grown from one of the sleeping occupants of the room. Outside the window a dream giggled nervously, wondering whether to risk entering, worried that the snores would wake someone and catch it before it could settle in a sub conscious.”