Book Quote:

“The arid land looks bleak and empty, but it is full of life, both wild and domestic, and – in the gaps between what is native – I have sown yet more life, embellishing the terrain with characters and stories culled from books. I am a grower of stories, I farm them as I would millet, a way of surviving in the world, assuaging hunger and confirming the future. ”

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe (JUL 17, 2011)

A “story man” walks from village to village across bare African lands, carrying a heavy book bag over his shoulder, filled with an odd collection of English language classics that visitors gave to him when passing through the villages. The books have opened his mind, like windows into another world: “I have read their books and told their stories very many times. I understand them, have seen the places that made them, seen the lives they want to live…”

Charles Davis’ new novel, Standing at the Crossroads, set most likely in Sudan, is an heart-rending example of superbly imaginative storytelling. It is centred around a gripping and often disturbing survival story of three travelers – man, woman, child – pursued by one of the violent local militias, “The Warriors of God.” Claiming Truth and God to be on their side, they are roaming the countryside, intent on devastating everything and killing everybody who stands in their way. Intimately woven into the action-filled narrative are richly modulated, visually expressive descriptions of the spectacular and highly varied desert landscape. I found myself drawn into Davis’ novel from the first page.

“I dream books in the waking world too, […] walking with the characters from my books, picturing them at my side.” So much so that the narrator introduces himself with “Call me Ishmael,” referring to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. He also loves telling “sea stories,” comparing the hostile immensity of oceans to that of the desert: “the surface of the desert is furrowed like a sheet of iron, each ripple rusted by the fast falling light of the setting sun, the dips filled with lengthening shadows, so it looks to me exactly like I imagine the sea must be, like after line of waves stretching away, the crest capped with a froth of golden light and sparkling air, as if aspiring to become another element altogether…”

En route to his “well of books,” where he hides his books in an abandoned village, Ishmael notices Kate, a white American scholar, traveling alone. Women alone are in even greater danger in this land where bandits and rebel groups are in control. Both escape a deadly attack by the Warriors, and Ishmael, against his better judgment yet committed to his own moral code, accompanies the young woman. Kate is passionate about documenting with her photographs the atrocities she is witnessing in this “undeclared war.” Once the world knows, she argues, governments will act. Ishmael questions her rationale and the wisdom of being seen taking pictures. “Pictures, in any case, preserve nothing because they do not engage the imagination like words. Only the imagination can make things live again…” Two very different world views clash: images against words; activist versus quiet “witness” – both needing to survive.

Through Ishmael’s voice, Davis subtly weaves into the narrative relevant political and philosophical reflections, underscoring the differences between the two protagonists: “Men with guns and horses […] may pretend they are invincible, but at heart they know they are vulnerable. Power is a trick, like community is a trick, like love and charity are tricks, like reading and telling stories and walking them out across the land are tricks, ways of denying death and pretending we can somehow escape. Everyone needs these tricks and it doesn’t matter much what your trick is, so long as it teaches a little human warmth and pity.”

After hiding from their pursuers in another devastated village, a mute young girl attaches herself to them and the trio, in effect, turns out to be more able to deter the hunters than any of them could have achieved alone. They will eventually discover a hidden oasis on the other side of the mountain range… where spirit and body has a chance to recover, where solace and some form of love could grow, and, at least for a while, they feel like having found Paradise … yet, they can hear the guns firing and detect the white flowing gowns of the Men on Horses in the distance…

The author plays with metaphors, allegories and symbolisms in this novel, not only as he imagines his heroes’ paradise. For example, the weight of his books, both literally and metaphorically, afford him strength in the ongoing struggles with his childhood friend, turned vicious enemy, Jemal, the leader of The Warriors of God. Or, hinting at the life-saving, water-giving well that saves the Biblical Ishmael, Davis’ Ishmael hopes that his “well of books” can also save him and his companions. The author’s extraordinary skill to bring the diverse desert landscapes to life, with all their beauty, harshness and fragility to life, I was reminded of J.M.G.’s Desert, set in the deserts of West Africa.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 9 readers
PUBLISHER: Permanent Press; hardcover edition (February 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Friderike Knabe
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor


July 17, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Africa, World Lit

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