Childhood memories

2011-11-02 00:00

CROSSING back and forth in time and charting lives and events in ­Liberia, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Ethiopia and Britain, this novel, by English writer Ginny ­Baily, comprises stories that are interwoven across time and place.

The novel centres on an English woman, Adele, who spends much of her early life in Senegal where, as an adult, she returns to seek a childhood friend. Like her, many of the other characters too are on the move — the Welsh girl travelling in Mali, the refugee family escaping from the war in Liberia, the trafficked Senegalese girl transported to Mali, her brother in his search for work trying to find a passage to ­Europe, the English doctor in an Ethiopian wartime resettlement camp, and so on.

Many of the stories are of children and childhood, and whether they are about Adele’s memories of a seaside holiday in Senegal and her secret friendship with the nightwatchman’s daughter, or Fatima’s struggles to survive after being sold to child traffickers by her family, they have a well-written and engaging vividness with all the immediacy of childhood.

The connections between the stories result from the often unexpected ways lives touch each ­other, sometimes tangentially and sometimes directly, with some of the significances only ­recognisable in retrospect. ­Although the novel is well constructed, it takes an alert reader to pick up on all the ­linkages that construct the ­cross-threads between the stories, and some might think that ­ultimately the novel ties up a bit too neatly.

On her return from Senegal, schoolteacher Adele arranges to twin her school in Britain with a school in Dakar. She subsequently tells someone that the twinning of the schools works both ways, not only benefiting the children at the school in Senegal, but also making the children at the British school more aware: “‘They see how lucky they are,’ she said. ‘It holds up a mirror to them.’”

Is it just out here in Africa that one can’t help reflecting, what kind of a twin is that?

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