Even in this golden age of African women writing in English, Zimbabwean Petina Gappah stands out. Her earlier books — two lyrical short-story collections and an elegant debut novel, “The Book of Memory” — garnered awards and widespread acclaim. Now with her searing, poignant, often hilarious “Out of Darkness, Shining Light,” she upends the conventions of historical fiction in a tale based on the true account of 69 men, women and children, who in 1873-74 ferried the body of British explorer David Livingstone from present-day Zambia to Zanzibar in order that he might be brought by ship to his homeland for interment.
Gappah’s two narrators couldn’t be farther apart in training and disposition. The first half of “Out of Darkness, Shining Light” is told by Halima, Livingstone’s cook, who both adores and resents the famous man she calls “Bwana Daudi.” The novel opens with the long-infirmed Livingstone’s death, an event that galvanizes his copious household to do the right thing by their cherished leader. After a spirited debate, they decide to preserve the corpse, burying his heart beneath a mpundu tree. Halima is a kind of African Wife of Bath, regaling her peers with earthy opinions, unsolicited advice, a comic shrewdness tinged with self-contradiction. In stream-of-consciousness fashion she weaves from memories of her childhood in a sultan’s kitchen to her own roving eye — bossy, brassy and brilliantly realized.
Gappah’s other narrator, Jacob Wainwright, a freedman and sanctimonious missionary, doesn’t like Halima much, calling her “a particularly troublesome woman, given to much levity and unable, apparently, to think seriously on any matter. Her propensity for causing quarrels among the women is great.”
Gappah frames the book’s second half as a series of entries in Wainwright’s diary, while the entourage slogs for nine months across swamps and savannas, struggling with hunger and hostile peoples, to reach the coast. If Halima is the novel’s gleeful id, Wainwright is its superego, imperious and self-regarding, with little patience for his fellow Africans who are like strangers to him: “It is a licentious business, this traveling, with far too many opportunities for sin, for the men all have wives awaiting them at home.”
Gappah’s treatment of her characters’ odyssey, by turns playful and tragic, is underpinned by a larger theme: the legacy of colonization. As a boy Wainwright was abducted in the flourishing (and abolished) slave trade along Africa’s eastern coast. Gappah’s literary language reflects these tensions, her crystalline English sentences blended with phrases and idioms from Swahili. The result is an intricate storytelling that delves deep into the disturbing yet indelible relationship between two continents, with the enigmatic Livingstone both an avatar of colonial aggression and a figure beloved by the people who knew him best.
“Out of Darkness, Shining Light” beautifully evokes the moral ambiguities that lurk within the human heart, revealing a talent that continues to grow from book to book.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light By: Petina Gappah. Publisher: Scribner, 303 pages, $27.
Hamilton Cain is author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.