This very popular american writer has written one very good novel," The Pilot's wife" in which she analyzed the secrets of a marriage and its eventual failure, and this seems indeed to be her main theme, but here the setting is in Kenya and not New England. Curiously, that is what made me read it, since Kenya is one of the most beautiful countries in Africa and also a very secretive society since the famous Mau Mau murderous rebellion led by the fearsome Kenyatta exposed to the horrified West the first tribal war on the African soil. Nobody ever forgot the Mau Mau massacres.
In this novel, the hierarchy of tribes with the Kikuyu running the country, the ex- colonial brits ,the expats and Asian Africans form a fascinating background for the story which paints a sorry picture of the hatred , resentment and aggression thrown at westerners working in Kenya, who see their personal lives torn down by fear and stress. An American couple joins a group of expats climbing Mount Kenya with guides and porters and during a glacier's crossing , one of the women falls into a vertiginous ravine and dies tragically in front of the horror stricken group.. The American wife, Margaret feels somewhat guilty of this horrible fall because the victim's husband had been courting her stupidly the night before, and this wrong interpretations is not deluded by her hapless husband, and thus a malaise is created between them and never really cleared. We have here the drama of the un-said and the un- explained at its worst between two persons too young and too un-experienced to understand the power of ambiguity and false guilt. Naturally things get worse with the appearance of two other potential seducers of both husband and wife who tread into their lives and give an alternative to marital disappointment. A banal and rather boring story really but Shreve is able to portray the subtle atmosphere of African threat all around them(lies, robberies, police interferences, horrendous poverty ) which render the plot exotic, menacing and dramatic , so that these characters become real enough.Their marriage will not survive probably.
All African novels written by western writers proceed in my mind from the utter fascination held by that continent on most of us: the hierarchy of these societies, their strict beliefs in ancestral rites which cannot be transcended,the great parks full of wonderful animals, the African deep distrust of their former masters and the overwhelming dominion of males, all these have an incredible impact especially on female writers. Think of Karen Blixen, of Nadine Gordimer or Doris Lessing , who all wrote epic novels as well as political ones where mere human lives are hardly able to survive . Shreve has an intuition of that impediment indeed; her latest book is worth reading and brings the flavor of unknown complexities absent in Boston, Massachusetts where her characters seem all to live.