Vanessa Henman is the aging writer at the heart of Maggie Gee's luminous new novel, and she's been invited to Uganda for the International Conference on African Writing. When she lands, it's hard not to despise her, since she's every bit the obnoxious foreigner she hopes she's not: "Black tea, cold milk, English-style," she tells a waiter, "slowly and with emphasis. Why can't they ever get tea right?" When the Internet connection fails, she laments her "right to good communication."
And yet, as the book unfolds, we see that Vanessa is not quite as she seems. This shouldn't be a huge surprise, since Maggie Gee is no ordinary novelist. In fact, "My Driver" is something of a sequel to her previous novel, "My Cleaner," in which Vanessa's grown son -- bedridden with depression -- requests their old cleaner, Mary Tendo, from Uganda, who comes to set things right.
In "My Driver" (which reads as a stand-alone novel), the tables are turned, and Vanessa is on Mary's turf. Unbeknownst to Vanessa, her ex-husband, Trevor, is also in the country, because Mary has secretly summoned him to help repair the well in her village. He finds Mary transformed into a powerful, complicated and at times harsh woman.
These two forces, Vanessa and Mary, circle each other throughout the novel, nearly missing several times as they move in their formidable orbits, fate drawing them closer. As the story moves ahead, each eventually shows cracks in the façades they put forward: Mary softens toward Trevor, and toward everything, while Vanessa also shows a kind of self-doubt that is real and humanizing
The result is a remarkable, fast, funny and complex novel, set in a lively, harsh, complicated place in which the characters can live, breathe and, most of all, grow. But moreover, Gee seems to be painting on a broader canvas than many novelists these days. There is a Shakespearean, comedic air about the whole thing, which is refreshing in a world where people seem increasingly concerned with small things. At one point, Vanessa is in the war-torn West on a gorilla safari and we find ourselves looking down on her from above:
"The birds look down on the tiny humans," Gee writes. "Something's going to happen. A beginning, or an ending. Maybe love, maybe war. Something that has happened many times before. But the humans always think they are unique, the one-and-only. Fixed on the shining edge of the moment, already regretting they must slip into the past."
And so we do. Thankfully, Gee and her characters help us remain on that edge a little longer.
Frank Bures is a writer in Minneapolis.