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Book Review

A Mother's Journeys Converge in Africa

STILL WATERS IN NIGER;\o7 by Kathleen Hill; (Triquarterly Books / Northwestern; University Press; $24.95, 206 pages)\f7

May 28, 1999|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a fundamental sense, all novels can be said to be about journeys: journeys into other lives, minds, families, places; journeys through time, with its powerful capacity to mold and mystify, to contain meaning and to obscure it; journeys--often--of the self, in which a character seeks to learn how he came to be who he is, and why.

Kathleen Hill's resonant and probing first novel, "Still Waters in Niger," charts an actual journey that the first-person narrator, an unnamed mother, takes to Niger to visit her grown daughter, Zara, who is working at the Centre Medical in Matameye, caring for the sick, many of them starving or dehydrated children. Embedded in this journey is a preceding journey that the narrator took to Niger 17 years earlier when she and her husband, Mike, and their three daughters lived there for a year while Mike collected material for a dissertation. Haunted by these coupled visits to Africa, the narrator ends up traveling as much through its desert landscape as she does through less tangible places: time and memory; the complex links between mothers and daughters; the relationship between a mature woman and her earlier, more fearful, elusive self.

Although "Still Waters in Niger" is modest in plot, it is abundant in understanding. The narrator arrives in Niger to find that Zara, at 26, has become a stranger to her. She is capable with her work; she speaks Hausa fluently; she has made an affectionate bond to an older local woman, El Gouni, which brings on pangs of jealousy in her mother. Gradually we learn that when the narrator and her family were first living in Africa, she somehow failed her daughter. Between the women there is a palpable sense of conflicts unresolved, a long history not yet fully plumbed.

To Hill's credit, she does not supply a false or melodramatic denouement to tidy up the proceedings; instead, this mother-daughter relationship is slowly and carefully illuminated by perceptions and insights that present themselves as the narrator and Zara make a series of visits: to the house in which they once lived, to various clinics, to shops, to friends' houses, to the home of the local chieftain. Piece by piece we learn that the narrator had herself originally come to Africa--like Zara?--to "escape the maternal gaze." We learn of her "deep-seated timidity before the world"; the combination of joy and anxiety that child-rearing kindled in her (she was "the mother who cannot manage"); and her recognition that "my preoccupation with shadows . . . at times has made us unrecognizable to each other." It is rare to find intricate and ambivalent maternal feelings addressed with such a lack of posturing and such generous candor.

Not all of the narrator's attention is inward or backward focusing. Her eye regularly turns toward the mystery and the beauty of Niger, so that by the end the book becomes a vivid travelogue as well. Thus we learn about the droughts that cause the riverbed to dry and crack open, "casting up bones and bits of stone and root," and we hear about relentless winds that "blew the vultures backward through the sky." There is the ubiquity of sand and dust, the relief that comes from a "curtain of silver rain." There are gawo trees with egrets, storks and peacocks roosting in them, fields thick with millet, villages built of mud houses and straw huts.

Then there are the people. Old and wise, young and hard-working, some starving, others grieving, many remembering, the human beings who cross the narrator's path are never condescended to or sentimentalized: They are observed, befriended, learned from, recorded. Hill does not editorialize, but she does present arranged marriages, the cool treatment of the firstborn, the habit of taking multiple wives and giving up on starving babies, the tendency to touch, the faithful trust in Allah.

"What matters is continuity," the narrator remarks of the people of Niger, "the things that bind one generation to another, whatever remains after the worst has been done."

The same might be said of the narrator and her daughter. Continuity and the binding of generations: Whether explored in remote, exotic Niger or in the confines of family life, these are Hill's abiding concerns in her elegantly evocative book.

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