December’s book club read was The African Equation by Yasmina Khadra. It’s a book we were asked to review by the lovely folks at Gallic Books, and a novel that took us away from our usual genres into some unknown territory.
What’s it all about?
Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
One of the giants of francophone writing of our time, Algerian author Yasmina Khadra takes current events as a starting point to explore opposing views and myths of Africa and the West, attitudes to life and work and our duties towards our fellow humans, ultimately delivering a powerful message of friendship, resilience and redemption.
Kurt Krausmann, a recently bereaved Frankfurt doctor, is persuaded to join his friend, wealthy benefactor Hans Makkenroth, on a humanitarian mission to the Comoros. The journey helps him begin to confront his loss, but soon misfortune strikes again: the boat he and Hans are travelling in is hijacked in the Gulf of Aden and the men are taken hostage.
Held in a remote hideout, the prisoners suffer harsh conditions and the brutality of their guards; self-styled warriors, ex-army captains and even poets drawn to banditry through poverty or opportunism. When the group decamps to a lawless desert region and Hans is taken away, Kurt sinks deeper into despair. But fellow inmate Bruno, a French ethnologist who has been travelling Africa for 40 years, attempts to show Kurt another side to the wounded yet defiant continent he has taken to his heart.
What’s good about it?
We all loved the language of this book. Khadra has a knack of stringing together perfect sentences that puncture your senses and hit you with a killer line that will linger with you, reshaping your perspective on the most ordinary of things.
Take a look at some of these beautiful lines that really stood out to me:
This book considers the reputation and meaning of Africa and no character embodies that more than Joma. A violent pirate and a sensitive poet, he personifies the oxymoronic, contradictory nature of Africa; a continent that is at once stunningly beautiful, nourishing, fecund and simultaneously brutal and harrowing. The scenes in which Joma’s poetry collection is discovered were certainly the emotional heart of the book.
What’s not so good about it?
We had a few issues with the book.
Firstly, the novel is structured in three parts – the first focuses on the suicide of Kurt’s wife; the second on his capture in Africa; the third on his attempts to rebuild his life with Elena. We all found the middle section the most engaging and felt it was bookended by two lesser, melodramatic sections.
The circumstances of Kurt’s wife’s death also frustrated us. Her motivations are suggested but never confirmed and it felt like an unresolved mystery that had no narrative purpose other than to place Kurt in the location of his kidnap. It would have been nice to hear more from Jessica in a book that lacks a strong female voice.
The third part of the book fails to match the speed and pace of the middle, and we all felt it meandered towards its conclusion rather than getting there with energy.
Overall, this was a hit with book club. It wasn’t our standard fare but we were pleasantly surprised by the elegance of the writing and the strength of (most of) the narrative.
Thanks to Gallic Books for providing us with review copies of this book.