Book review – The Garden of Burning Sand: Beatific blonde saves the day

2013-10-20 14:00

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Corban Addison’s thrillers have a clear formula, which allows him to write about the things he loves: human rights, the legal profession and travelling to places nowhere like his home state of Virginia in the US.

One of those places is Zambia, where most of The Garden of Burning Sand plays out.

I tried explaining the plot to someone and got tied up in knots.

This despite Addison taking care in how he meticulously develops his back stories and all the connections between characters to reveal a great web underlying what seems like a simple crime.

Yes, it’s about a Zambian adolescent with Down’s syndrome who gets raped, and yes, it follows the highly involving case of how difficult it is to prosecute for rape when you can’t use DNA.

And when it turns out the assailant might be someone from a powerful Zambian family, the prosecution’s case becomes even more difficult.

The more I tried explaining the story, the more lamentable the book sounds. A quarter of the central characters seem to be HIV positive or are already dead as a result of Aids.

The main character, Zoe Fleming – a young, idealistic, attractive human rights lawyer from a very privileged background – almost gets gang raped in a slum. And that’s not even her first experience with rape. There’s also a tragic back story of how a woman is forced into prostitution in Lusaka.

Then you get into the details of how badly the average African child with an intellectual disability is treated because he or she is seen as some sort of curse.

In Zambia, four out of five children with intellectual impairments don’t make it past the age of five. And those who do make it live out their lives hidden in back rooms.

Despite all this African poverty porn, the book more or less rollicks along, with even the odd car chase, some intimidation-by-black-mamba and the mandatory love story.

The Zambian legal system is well-researched (like everything else). As a South African reader, you get a sense of how good we still have things here by comparison.

When Zambians need a DNA test done, you hear: “Send that sample to Joburg.” When a Zambian needs life-saving surgery: “Send her to Joburg.” For a price, of course. But give us your tired, your poor, your huddled Zambians.

But the book suffers from a sense of wearing its righteousness too obviously on its sleeve. There’s a scene in which the protagonist addresses a US Senate committee on the subject of “generosity”. Fleming is hoping the US won’t decide to cut back on aid.

“If my mother were alive today,” Fleming tells the Senate, “She would praise Africa’s economic growth and fledgling middle class. She would encourage the expansion of free enterprise and support efforts to make aid smarter and more efficient.

“She would hold high the banner of trade as a rising tide that lifts all boats. But she would not abandon our system of foreign assistance.

Indeed, she would argue that generosity will always be necessary because the profit motive that drives trade has no mechanism for meeting the needs of the poor. The reason is simple: the poor cannot pay.”

Sweeping rhetoric, and Fleming is unflinchingly noble throughout this book. Even when she has sex, it’s almost a charitable act.

She’s perhaps Addison’s ideal: beautiful, intelligent, well connected, wealthy and completely selfless.

In his afterword, Addison writes: “Indeed, it is possible the foreign assistance of the future will be dominated by smart, innovative private giving.”

For the sake of the Third World, I hope the Flemings do exist. Personally, I found her 29-year-old “Nancy Drewness” a bit annoying and wished for some hint that there was a real person underneath all the saintliness.

Addison is building his formula and taking the court procedural genre into uncharted territory. He has a loyal fanbase and I can see why someone might love this shamelessly one-dimensional canvas on which the good people are truly good, the bad guys are irredeemable in just about every way, and everyone gets their just deserts.

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