Synopsis: “This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land.” So begins Petina Gappah’s powerful novel of exploration and adventure in nineteenth-century Africa—the captivating story of the loyal men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone’s body, his papers and maps, fifteen hundred miles across the continent of Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there. Narrated by Halima, the doctor’s sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, a rigidly pious freed slave, this is a story that encompasses all of the hypocrisy of slavery and colonization—the hypocrisy at the core of the human heart—while celebrating resilience, loyalty, and love.
Hi everyone, and welcome to the fall!!! If you’re like me, you’re probably more than just excited about the change of the seasons. I’m wayyyy more than ready to be wearing wool sweaters and curling up on my couch with a good book. I’ve started grad school which means that curling up on the couch will probably be more for doing readings for school than for pleasure, but I’m sure I’ll be able to find a good balance. Before we hop into this review, I’d like to thank Simon & Schuster for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review! They’re the best!
One very particular reason that I chose this specific book to read is that I’ve been more and more aware of the literature that I consume and in many cases, it is written by a white person and is about white people. Something that I’ve been wanted to be more conscious of is adding diversity to what I read. It’s definitely not the only draw of this book for me (the synopsis and the historical fiction aspect were also part of it) but it was part of it. I was also really stoked about the change of perspective. For many people, the story of Dr. Livingstone’s expedition, death, and the return of his body to England was just that – Dr. Livingstone’s story. This book completely flips the script and tells the story of all the people who made the expedition possible, and gives a voice to people who have been denied one before. So my challenge to you all is to try to #decolonizeyourbookshelf this year, and branch out with what you’re reading!
The story has two narrators, Halima is the cook for Dr. Livingstone’s expedition, and Jacob Wainwright, a freed slave who aspires to be a priest. Of the two perspectives, I enjoyed Halima’s much more, mainly because I’m not a religious person myself and so Jacob’s rhetoric became grating after a while. I did think that the contrast of their perspectives was interesting though, as Halima’s was much more emotional and Jacobs was much more pious and almost naive. This was particularly clear to me when a tragedy befalls Halima and we read it through Jacob’s narration, it’s almost an emotionless recounting of the events whereas had Halima been narrating you probably could have felt her sadness through the pages. In a way I think that this makes the story a little bit more interesting, because having such different narrators changes the bias and how the events are told.
Other characters really shocked me, like Chirango, and I was surprised thay even when I disliked him, I could understand his rage. I think this book does a great job of showing how ingrained racism is in some contexts, and how it can slowly begin to look like the norm. Even Livingstone, who was supposedly against slavery, was friends with slavers, and this is something that the characters themselves have to come to terms with.
The story itself is very immersive. Gappah clearly did a lot of research for the novel and it shines through. While there can be a few difficult names here or there (something I do wish she had included was a pronunciation guide) it’s overall very easy to follow. Sometimes the names of specific places get confusing or the more minor characters blur together, but it doesn’t detract from the plot. Just like the expedition is moving towards the coast and moving through places, you can replace a past location with a new one and not really worry about where the group was.
But what I really carried throughout the book was one specific line from the introduction, “What if we had known then that our final act of loyalty to him would sow the seeds of our children’s betrayal, their fate, and their children’s children’s also?” The entire book, I couldn’t help but feel as though this one act of love for a man who had treated these people fairly (and from what we read we do see that he respected them) was doomed to fail one way or the other. Their journey to the coast wasn’t without deaths, and if you believe that this was one of the catalysts for English colonialism in Africa, it makes you wonder what would have happened if the expedition had just parted ways and buried the body where Dr. Livingstone died.
Overall I liked this book a lot. It gave me a lot to think about and is a fairly easy read. Yeah, there might be a couple hard words, but I believe in you (come on, how different is Unyanyembe from Cirith Ungol, or Khazad-dum?). Like I mentioned earlier, it would have been nice to have a pronunciation guide, and in my opinion she could have left out a couple of Jacob’s more passionate Christian moments. But just my opinion.
I would rate this 4/5 stars! See you soon with another review ducks!!