A reader should always expect something fresh and original from a new novel, and, when we're promised a trip to Africa, expectations rise. Of course, Africa has been too much explored in past years for most people not to be familiar with the terrain: an abundance of beauty and space existing in uneasy juxtaposition to poverty, hunger and brutality. We have seen how the old colonial ways have been rediscovered by new tribes of expatriates bringing their cinematic dreams of Africa with them, only to succumb to the white man's tedious distractions of adultery and alcohol. Inevitably, they depart the continent with a standard repertoire of horror stories: corrupt bureaucrats, gratuitous military violence, the carnage of elephants for ivory. Even those who travel no further than the local mall will have come across at least some of these tales.
So, picking up Harriet Heyman's first novel, "Between the Rains," one hopes for a fresh intelligence that will throw a good strong light on a unique continent. Sadly, we are disappointed. There are no new insights in "Between the Rains," and I think the author knows it. In a letter home to her boyfriend, the heroine perfectly expresses Heyman's own inadequacy: "She could describe the speed of the cats but not the thrill of tracking them. She could describe the killing, but not how it felt that she and Max were the only human witnesses to it."
The book opens with a young woman, Mirie Keane, leaving Manhattan. She takes off for East Africa clutching a bag of photographer's equipment and some romantic notions about photographing an elephant giving birth--an act never captured before on film. With a commission to take shots of a safari ranch, she meets the usual round- up of old Africa hands and expatriates and has a few exciting moments in the bush with wild animals. One of her photographs--a gory shot of a fatal buffalo attack--brings her notoriety and enables her to stay on in Africa. She shakes off the dust of her past and engages in an unconvincing romance with a character who has not previously given her the time of day.
The book limps along as Mirie, photographs safe in her bag, sets off for the capital, only to run into military barricades. Soldiers ransack her belongings and toss her film onto rose bushes strewn with the corpses of looters killed by the army. Finally, reaching the airport, crowded with people making a hasty exodus, the plane rumbles down the runway and we catch a last look at our adventurer, who is giggling nervously in her seat.
Journeys should be as spiritual as they are physical. In leaving behind the habits and attitudes of our everyday lives, we can be freed by the different rhythms of another culture and experience something unexpected and exotic--both in the land and within ourselves. Herein lies one of the main problems of "Between the Rains." The writer too quickly connects with the disdain and cynicism that is so much a part of the white experience in Africa. She sees Africa as the expatriates do, and this accounts for the jaded and superficial quality of the book. It is written without the benefit of imagination and remains untroubled by intelligence. One tags along for the ride, but is not the better for it.
The wonder of an elephant birth--and this is the entire purpose of this African sojourn--is described with astonishing banality. The birthing pains of a new nation, though given scant attention, are handled with the same careless indifference.
"Between the Rains" seems to go to some lengths never to outreach itself, and, because of this, Heyman has managed to bring back only a very small trophy from her African adventure.