I received a review copy of this title from Two Dollar Radio via Edelweiss.
The country of Tanzania has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world, but it is also one of the most dangerous places for albinos to live. They are shunned by their communities because they are viewed as ghosts who dwell on earth and never die. They also live in constant fear of violence because body parts from albinos are sought out to be used in potions made by African witch doctors. When Pilgrim Jones, the female protagonist in Melanie Finn’s latest novel, finds herself in dusty, decrepit and remote towns of Tanzania, she encounters firsthand the superstition and violence that plagues albinos living in East Africa.
Each of the characters in this novel, which has been described as a literary thriller, are dealing with grief and loss in different ways. Pilgrim, whose point of view takes up more than half of the narrative, has fled to Tanzania because of a double tragedy that she suffered while living in Switzerland. Pilgrim’s story alternates back and forth between her time spent in Switzerland and in East Africa. Pilgrim was married to a human rights lawyer named Tom who suddenly abandons her for another woman with whom he is having a child. Pilgrim married Tom while very young and has put off her own career aspirations in order to follow him around the world while he prosecutes people who are guilty of the most heinous human rights violations. Pilgrim is numb and floating around in a world in which she doesn’t know how to live without Tom as her husband. The only reason she was living in a small town in Switzerland was due to the fact that this was the last place to which Tom had led her.
The narrative shifts back and forth abruptly and Pilgrim suddenly finds herself in the hospital with very little memory of the tragic car accident in which she was involved. Finn draws our attention to cruel fate and the series of coincidences which add up to a tragedy that has far-reaching and devastating effects. Pilgrim can’t help but think that if Tom hadn’t abandoned her then she would not have been in the car that rainy, sad day. She tries to escape the haunting memories of her failed marriage and the car accident that caused so much grief and sorrow by choosing one of the most remote places on earth to hide; she knows that in Tanzania no one will know anything about her or her past. But what she fails to realize is that as a white, American woman, which is an anomaly in East Africa, she attracts a great deal of interest.
Finn describes Tanzania in a poetic language that brings us to the dark continent that is simultaneously beautiful and ugly. Pilgrim rents a cottage in Tanzania that overlooks a bay. A stout, Midwestern woman named Gloria, who has fled the U.S. in order to escape her own misery, rents her the cottage:
We stand in the gloaming. The late evening light, soft and translucent, has made the world benign. The house is white and round and sheltered by red-blooming tulip trees. A hundred yards from the door, a low sandy cliff dips to the sea and a swarm of mangroves. White egrets flock to roost. The sun slips behind the mangroves, creating spangles and diamonds through the leaves. The air vibrates with the wild looping song of Bulbul birds.
But the beauty of this place is tainted by albino body parts left in the box, orphans who are abandoned because they have AIDS, and pregnant women who die because there is no proper health care available. The second part of the novel is told through the eyes of characters with whom Pilgrim has come in contact and who are fighting back against grief that, at times, feels all-consuming. Dorothea, for instance, is a doctor at a clinic in Magulu where basic supplies like antibiotics and bandages are scarce. Dorothea’s husband was Kenyan and he disappeared one night over the border into his native country with their two young sons. Magulu is as close to Kenya that she can possibly be so Dorothea takes a job at this pathetic, wretched clinic. Her boyfriend is the town policeman who has seen people inflict the most awful atrocities on one another. Magulu feels like a desolate place where no one really wants to go but people end up there because of an awful twist of fate.
The book ends with the point of view of Detective Inspector Paul Strebel who was the lead investigator on Pilgrim’s car accident in Switzerland. Strebel is a sad man who is going through the motions of his life, especially where his marriage is concerned. But when he meets Pilgrim, a lonely and vulnerable woman who has been abandoned by the rest of the world, he experiences lust and a sexual awakening. He knows this is unethical and wrong but he can’t help himself:
But now he felt the urge to touch this young woman, to hold her and comfort her—and he could not pretend the urge was simply protective. He as appalled. And in equal measure, he was stunned by the small hollow at the base of her throat, by the upturn of flesh where her upper lip bowed. It was as if she’d suddenly come into focus; she was clear, so brilliantly, perfectly clear and distinct against the grey, oaty ass of his life. He felt a surge of happiness—of being alive.
Strebel sees people at the worst moments of their lives, when they have lost loved ones and suffered unspeakable tragedies. He sees in Pilgrim an escape, even if only temporary, from his “grey” and oftentimes black existence.
Melanie Finn has demonstrated in this book that she is a master of lyrical prose which at times has a staccato feel due to her penchant for short and abrupt sentences; yet each word flows, one into the next and they fit together into one beautiful and descriptive narrative. I highly recommend The Gloaming not only as a literary thriller but also as a book which enlightens us about the contradictory nature of the beautiful content of Africa and as a story that has a timeless message about the cruel nature of fate.
About the Author:
Melanie Finn has worked as a screenwriter and a journalist, and is the founder and director of the Natron Health Project, which brings healthcare to Maasai communities in Northern Tanzania. Her first novel, Away From You, was published to great critical acclaim in 2004, and was longlisted for the ORANGE and IMPAC PRIZEs.