Tag Archives: Africa

A Distant Shore (2003) – Caryl PHILLIPS

This is the last novel on the course of postcolonial literature I’m doing this semester, so you won’t be bombarded by novels about the terrible things that happen during colonial times any more. Though, to be fair, this isn’t really about that at all. A Distant Shore may actually be the most postcolonial novel I’ve read all year, considering the issues it talks about.

England has changed. Both Dorothy and Solomon know it. Dorothy has separated from her husband, and moved into a new town, hoping to escape her past. Solomon has recently arrived in England, away from the violence of his home, hoping to escape his past. And as a glimmer of friendship forms between these two unlikely people,their past lives come into focus, and show us you can never really escape what you’re running from.

Good God, this is a weird novel. I don’t know whether to warn you or not about the first section, in which Dorothy comes off as just a tiny bit racist, and you really want to throttle her. Phillips plays heavily with the use of time, particularly in this first section, and if you don’t know it’s coming, it can be very off-putting. He alternates between past and present in the space of two paragraphs, completely without warning – the reasons for which don’t really become apparent until the very end of the first section, and then later on, when Dorothy comes once again into focus. The setting of the novel, too, takes a while to become clear – if you’d said to me this was set in the 1960s, the 1990s, or the 2000s, none of those answers would have surprised me. Though, as it turns out, that may rather be the point of the novel.

It takes a while to get a grip on Dorothy. As I said above, she comes off as a tiny bit racist at the beginning, but to be fair to her, that’s the least of her problems. Cut off from pretty much all human contact, this is a deeply lonely woman. The death of her parents, and then her sister, affects her far more than she would like to think. Even her sleeping around with a few men doesn’t seem to find her any solace. But as she slowly descends into what is probably certifiable madness, it’s hard to feel sorry for her. Maybe because Phillips just doesn’t make us care enough – there’s never even a glimmer of redemption in this woman. Everything she does is just weirdly unlikable. Not a character I’d like to have dinner with, anyway.

Which leaves us with Solomon, who is comparatively more likeable. He comes into his own in the middle section, where we see from what he was escaping. There are other, better, descriptions of a generic war-torn African nation than the one Phillips presents here, so I don’t want to spend too much time on that. What interests me more, particularly in the context of the current Australian political climate, is his escape from Africa, and into England. It is not a pretty journey, and I think Phillips does a good job of capturing the desperation of refugees, without going too far. There’s no attempt at fake emotion here, though just as with Dorothy, the whole thing does seem a little too restrained.

There are some nice moments scattered throughout the novel: Solomon’s realisation that the culture of England is not at all like his own; Dorothy’s awkward conversations with the small-minded bartender she goes to for Guinness. There are probably others, but the fact that none of these characters make me feel anything – love, hate, anger, desire – makes me realise just how disconnected I felt from the whole thing.

I hesitate to use the same word to describe this novel three times in the space of about 700 words, but I’m going to. A Distant Shore is weird. There’s nothing to really grab onto and pull yourself into the ideas and themes of the book. Phillips is, I suspect, trying to show just how much England has changed – for better or worse, though, I don’t know. Dorothy, our English character, goes mad because she can’t connect with anyone on a real level, while Solomon, our immigrant, is brutally murdered, seemingly just because he is black. A bleak message, though it ultimately doesn’t pack any real punch.

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Things Fall Apart (1958) – Chinua ACHEBE

Having read Achebe’s essay on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness last year, I felt that the time was right for me to explore some of his earlier fiction works. And what better place to start than with his first, and definitely most famous, novel, Things Fall Apart.

Okonkwo is a young man in the village of Umuofia, somewhere in Western Africa. He lives with his three wives and their children in relative harmony, and he is considered a strong man in the village – partly because of his wrestling prowess. As he moves up the village hierarcy. however, something happens that will see the eventual fall of Okonkwo’s name in the village, as everything he thought he knew about life and the world around him is changed forever.

So much contemporary post-colonial literature that deals with interactions between native tribes and the invading conquerors seems to be so angry – there is clearly still a lot of feeling about these issues. And quite right, too. Yet Achebe manages to make his novel about Africa, without resorting to an angry diatribe about the negative impact of the colonising powers on his lands that so many authors feel the need to spurt forth these days. Which is a shame, because this can often lessen the impact of the inevitable finale – something that Achebe manages to keep intact. When the colonisers finally arrive at this village, at the same time that Okonkwo is returning from his exile, their actions are initially met with laughter and mild annoyance – once the big stuff begins to happen, though, everything goes downhill. And Achebe doesn’t seem to place the blame squarely at the feet of the colonisers – he sees it as a combination of the colonisiers, and the gradual weakening of the men of the tribe, which Okonkwo himself tries to stamp out.

Gender roles within this village, and the role of masculinity, are central to this novel. The women of the tribe are expected to marry for money and dowries, and when they do, they are expected to look after the children and their husbands. Those women who do not follow these rules are severely punished. Mind you, there’s some pretty terible punishments for other things out of their control, such as giving birth to twins.  Again and again, everything that is going wrong is blamed on the women. Im contrast, the men of the village are expected to be strong, tough, and warrior-like. Okonkwo particularly is worried that his son is not tough enough, and goes out of his way to try and toughen up his son, for fear of him becoming ‘womanly’. There seems to be this fear of weakness, a fear that, by not being strong, you will shrivel up and die. Which, I suppose, is what would happen. There doesn’t seem to be any room for much variation, for individuality, for very much. And yet, these people are content and happy with their lives. They have good company (restricted to one’s own gender), swift justice (there’s an excellent court scene that renews your hope in gender equality – just), access to food and water (for the most part) and, no doubt, an excellent view from the back porch.

Achebe has achieved fame because of his nationality and culture. As has Things Fall Apart. As with so many authors who come from outside the mainstream, it would be easy for him to ride on this, and simply write a story with some local flavour. Fortuantely, he has not done this in Things Fall Apart. While culture is a vital part of the novel, it is not the focus. Instead, we get a very understated, very relaxed look at gender roles, how this affects interaction with other people, and interaction with the world around us. Oh, and the last sentence is one of the greatest ever.

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Black Mischief (1932) – Evelyn WAUGH

I reviewed Evelyn Waugh’s first novel a few months ago, and I was supposed to read this one straight after. Clearly, though, I didn’t. I have some vague memory of starting it (I was probably half-asleep), and not getting it, deciding it was too difficult, and leaving it. Having reread my review of Decline and Fall, it seems I didn’t like it. At all. How, then, did this fare?

Emperor Seth of Azania (a small, independent African island nation off the east coast) has decided, after the latest coup attempt, that the best thing for his minions is to receive a good dose of Progress and the New Age. The Emperor himself, of course, was educated at Oxford, and when one of his friends, Basil Seal, from Oxford arrives in Azania, Seth sets about modernising the entire country, so that everyone may live better lives.

Black Mischief is so much better than Decline and Fall. Clearly, Waugh has had some time to practice, and is now able to do things like plot and characters. Shock! And while the first few pages are a little confusing (it wasn’t just my tired brain), and once you realise this book is supposed to be farcically funny, it really is. The things that happen are just so ridiculous and stupid, you can do nothing but shake your head and laugh. Seth’s stubborn refusal to do anything that night not be seen as ‘modern’ – and conversely, to do everything that is ‘modern’, simply because it is – is hilarious, and while many people may now see Seth’s ideas as comparably mainstream, they are quite clearly ridiculous here.

Of course, this is a Waugh novel, so conservative politics and ideals are very clearly brought into play. Nothing escapes Waugh’s satire – and he is very good at what he does. The English population of Azania, a population Waugh was clearly frustrated with at the time, are presented as doddering old fools, who care more about the latest gossip from home that anything else. William and Prudence, the two young people, are particularly subject to vicious satire – they laze around all day making out, while Prudence tries to write a novel that appeals to the common man, that takes on the ‘Panorama of Life’. This little dig at the modernist movement, along with many other parts of the English upper classes are what we come to expect from Waugh, and in this novel, he doesn’t disappoint. Similarly, the French are presented as suspicious and conniving, and several running jokes about French women and English men are part of what we have come to expect as part of Waugh’s ‘delayed detonation’ technique of humour.

There is a clear juxtaposition between the anarchy of Seth’s rule (read: ‘modernity’), and the sombre and restrained ending which Waugh presents. Once the attempts at modernity have been stopped, Azania can return to being ruled by the colonial powers – in this case, the English and the French, and a sense of normalcy and safety returns to the island. Similarly, those characters who have left the island return to a life of restrained Englishness in their proper place in society. Basil, in particular, is completely neutered as a character – though, he is already fed up with Seth before the final events. This, from a character who was a little bit of a cad to begin with. Clearly, Waugh is not a fan of the cad. Sorry, I just love that word. Cad.

Ok, so in the end, I actually really enjoyed this novel. A lot. It restored my faith in Evelyn Waugh, and I will most definitely be going out to read some more of his stuff. I love that nothing is sacred, and everything becomes this site of attack, and everything is hilarious – but witty, at the same time. On the flip side, though, I think, so far, he only has one trick – attacking progress. Hopefully he finds something else to pick on.

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She (1887) – H. Rider HAGGARD

This is the second of Haggard’s novels I have read in the last three weeks – too many, I say! And, I have been unwell, so this book has taken me a lot longer to read than it should have, meaning that by the end of it, I was very, very sick and tired of it. My bad.

She is Ayesha, a mysterious woman who rules over her kingdom through the fear of her magical powers, and the fact that she is said to be immortal. When three proper English gentlemen – Horace, Leo and Job – are shipwrecked onto the coast of her lands, conveniently fulfilling their own quest to avenge the death of one of Leo’s ancient ancestors, they unwittingly become involved in her mysterious and magical ways, and realise that the quest they set out upon may be far more difficult than they had ever previously imagined.

I think the best way to talk about this book is in reference to King Solomon’s Mines. While that novel is fairly simplistic in both its plot and philosophy, She is considerably more complex. No surprise there, considering that She was written several years later, when Haggard had become far more popular with the public. This is not to say, however, that this novel is a piece of high literature, right up there with the best. It isn’t.

But, it is a lot better than King Solomon’s Mines which filled me with anger every time I read Haggard’s opinions on women or the African people. While these ideas are also here in She, they are toned down a bit, especially the casual racism, which makes for a less painful read. Haggard seems to have a new appreciation for women in this novel, and there are far more positive female leads in here than before. Ustane, for example, the ‘savage’ wife of Leo, is given almost a personality, and even some dialogue that rises above grunts and snorts. Big if Haggard, really. And Ayesha herself is perhaps the most complex character Haggard has ever written. For me, at least, she elicited some sympathy, as a woman who has lived for two thousand years, tortured by the memories of what she had done to her lover. She has become this kind of sarcastic bitch, who doesn’t take any nonsense, and is particular calm-headed about everything.

For an adventure novel, however, Haggard does waste a lot of time trying to be all philosophical, spending pages and pages of dialogue trying to have ‘deep’ arguments about the philosophy of love and history. Move on, man! He also spends far too much time describing everything around his characters (hello, Tolkien), and I must confess to having occasionally skimmed through quite a few of them. I think both of these contribute to what I can only call a pacing problem, and between the occasional set-piece, we have lots and lots of either travelling, philosophising or, in Leo’s case, sleeping. Seriously, a lot of time sleeping.

So, is She worth reading? I think if I were going to pick between the two Haggard novels, then I would go with this one. It seems to be more mature, more complex, and more thoughtful. This does get it into a bit of trouble sometimes, when Haggard goes all philosophical, but the adventure bits are still good, and really, we all love to read a novel about a bitchy immortal woman who doesn’t suffer fools. At all.

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The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam (2008) – Lauren LIEBENBERG

Yes, that is the insanely long title of this book. Though, I do think that it is an excellent title, that really stands out. And, even though I have to read another Haggard novel for class, this won out, because I figured there was going to be less racism and misogyny. Then I realised that this was another book about white people in Africa. My bad.

Nyree and Cia are two young girls growing up in Rhodesia – that state of Africa that we now like to call Zimbabwe. Set during the war between the English settlers and the troops of ‘Terrs’ – that is, people fighting to kick the English out – it manages to use this only as a backdrop to the more intimate story of Nyree and Cia’s childhood. In particular, it marks the story of their cousin Ronin, who is sent to live with them during his school holidays. This turns out to be not such a good idea, as the balance of power in the family slowly changes, and the simple balance of family is upset forever.

I think the best thing that Liebenberg does in this novel is not focusing on the war that is going on around this family. While it is certainly ever-present – Nyree’s father is in the English army, fighting against Mugabe’s troops – it is not the focus of the novel. Instead, it provides a backdrop to what is perhaps not the most unique coming of age story, though certainly a very good one. Once again, I am going to make a small point about the ‘voice’ of the main character who, despite being nine years old, manages to use language well beyond her age. Though, this time, I am not going to complain. I kind of got the feeling from this novel that Nyree was telling someone her story – her use of the present tense perhaps helped – and it was a refreshing change to have a child narrator who is not some kind of tortured genius.

While the story of Ronin is the most important part of the novel, it has so much more to offer. Each chapter is almost a self-contained episode, and the Ronin ones kind of fit together to form the over-arching narrative that pays off in the end. It is clear that this novel is based on Liebenberg’s life – she probably had episodes from her own life in Rhodesia, and adapted them/changed them a bit to fit in with this story. There is one scene that I had to skip over, but it is near the end, and I’m sure most other people will have no trouble with it.

Nyree and Cia are the main characters, but the other characters are well defined, and certainly not boring. The girls’ insane, religious, imperial grandfather provides them with a warped education, and provides the ‘old voice’ of the colonisers of Africa. Ronin himself is a bastard, and nothing more, especially considering he is 14. By the end of the novel, you really hate him. Which is what he is there for, I suppose. And I have to make special mention of Moosejaw, one of the best literary dogs ever.

It took me a while to get into this book – the beginning chapters are pretty slow. And, to be fair, some of the chapters that don’t have Ronin, while nice, just seem to fade away sometimes. It is when Ronin is in full-swing that the story comes together and becomes really good. This is a solid first novel (and educational, too, since I didn’t know anything about Rhodesia before this), and hopefully the first of many.

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King Solomon’s Mines (1885) – H. Rider HAGGARD

I’m not dead! Sorry it has taken so long for me to write another review – I have been insanely busy with uni stuff and the such. But, now that I am back into the full swing of things, I can review the stuff that I have been reading lately. I have to read nine (!) novels for one of my courses, so there will definitely be some reviews coming along soon. This novel is the first on the course list, so what better place to start?

Allan Quatermain is a middle-aged Englishman living in the wilds of Southern Africa. When he is approached by two men – Henry Curtis and John Good – to help them find Curtis’ lost brother, and also some very big, and very valuable diamond mines, Quatermain’s sense of adventure is piqued. So begins one of the most famous adventure novels of all time, that has influenced everyone from Clive Cussler to Matthew Reilly. Three upright English gentlemen and their ‘helpers’ travel to the depths of Africa, to discover lost lands, treasures, and evil witch-doctors.

As with every novel, there are some phrases and ideals that seem very, very out of place in today’s world. Though, this one takes the cake. King Solomon’s Mines is one of the most misogynistic (going so far as to say the death of a woman was probably a good thing), racists (let’s not even mention the descriptions of the ‘natives’), and anti-environmentalist (you killed how many elepahnts?!) books I have ever read.

The only major problem with the story itself is that it is not very good. Well, no, that’s not totally true. The original intention of the characters is largely forgotten in most of the action, instead, Haggard relies on a twist that is insanely obvious (though, to his credit, he deals with it quickly), to trigger events that make up the majority of the book. It is not until the almost epilogue-style last few chapters that the original intention of the expedition is remembered, and acted upon.

Haggard wrote this book as a challenge – one of his friends had told him he could not write a novel as good as Treasure Island. I think his friend was right. Quatermain ‘puts’ a little note at the beginning of his text, saying he is just writing what happened to him, not caring about the style and such. This is certainly true. As with a large number of other adventure novels of the time (see, for example, The First Men in the Moon), I find it very difficult to believe that these very proper English gentlemen could ever find themselves in a situation like this, and somehow manage to remain pompous and maintain a sense of superiority about everyone they meet. Though, in a sense, this is exactly what this book is really all about. It is about the white man in the colonies, who, despite the barbarians around him, manages to maintain a sense of dignity and evolution – the latter point more pertinent with the publication of Darwin’s works.

If you are looking for some kind of retro fix when it comes to adventure novels, give this a go. Be warned, though, there are some seriously offensive passages that you should watch out for. Or, you could just go and read the latest Clive Cussler/Matthew Reilly/Dan Brown, which are, at the very least, more relevant and less offensive.

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Homesickness (1980) – Murray BAIL

I have tried to read this book about three times in the last three years. Each time, I’ve read about ten pages, and given up. Which is a shame, ’cause I loved Bail’s later work Eucalyptus, that doomed film with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. I think I’m glad it didn’t get made – Bail’s novels would not make very good films, I think. But enough about his famous work. Homesickness is Bail’s first novel, so despite his popularity and fame as a genius short story writer, I much prefer a good novel to sink my teeth into. And, I finally read it fully. So go me.

Homesickness is the story of thirteen people who have never met before. They have all been pushed together on a world tour, and together, must try to deal with the differences and similarities that every tourist must face when they leave the comfort of their own home. From the traditional married couple to the communist, the young naive girl to the wife beater, each of these characters provides a fascinating look at how people react to the changing world around them, in places they would normally never visit.

Murray Bail is a brilliant writer. I can’t believe it took me so long to get into this book. I don’t know what I was on. Maybe I was too young. Who knows. The point is, I’m an idiot. The language that fills this book is some of the most beautiful and evocative I have ever read. Eucalyptus comes a close second. I should stop mentioning that book. This book pulls off the unenviable task of having to try and recreate six different countries in a way that makes them all seem different, yet somehow similar at the same time. And Bail does it brilliantly. Each place they visit – Africa, London, Quito, New York, Russia – are all clearly different, yet there is somehow a sameness that runs through the book. Genius.

The other thing that I really love in this book is its museums. While Bail could very easily (and justifiably) treated a large number of his characters with contempt, he doesn’t. Each visit by these people is dominated by a visit to a museum of some kind – no doubt a subtle(-ish) message to all of those potential tourists who read this book wanting to do nothing but see everything that ‘has to be seen’ wherever they are going – and while there is the occasional moment of realisation for these characters that they are doing something highly superficial, for the most part not even we as readers are even aware of it. Though, there is one character who takes photos of everything. He’s there for a little knowing comic relief. Each museum is carefully chosen to represent an ‘intrinsic’ part of each country – New York’s museum is about marriage, while Quito’s is about feet (it makes perfect sense in the book) – and despite this, you still sometimes get the feeling that these tourists are still not quite getting ‘it’. Some of these scenes in Russia, in Lenin’s tomb, are downright hilarious – with the Cold War in full swing, some pretty naive Australians from whoop-whoop are saying some pretty dumb things.

The only criticism that I feel I should mention is that some of the passages begin to drag – especially in the middle. Maybe I’d just been reading too much of it at once. But enough of that. I could talk about this book for hours, and how wonderful it is. I won’t though. Suffice to say, I really like this book. Everyone needs to go out and read it. Now. Especially if, like me, you’ve done a bit of travelling. I suspect some of the jokes and ironies are there for people who have spent time travelling, whether it be on a bus, or some more ‘dirty’ exploring.

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What is the What (2006) – Dave EGGERS

This is a very odd novel. If we can call it that. I like to think we can. Having said this, What is the What is very much based on the experiences of one person – indeed, Eggers himself said that he was not sure whether he would write a biography or a novel. If nothing else, it is probably one of the truest portraits of modern Sudan, in any format.

Valentino Achak Deng is a young Sudanese man who has recently come to America to live. He opens his door one day, when someone asks if they can briefly use his phone, and finds himself on the ground, being mugged. In an attempt to placate the people who have mugged him, he begins to tell them the story of his life. Growing up in a small village in the south of Sudan, he finds himself in the middle of a civil war, on the run from the government, and the rebels, unsure of whether his family is still alive, and whether or not he himself will survive much longer.

Eggers has a very specific purpose in this novel. Having spent months talking to the real Valentino (on whose life this book is based), he essentially retells the story of the Sudanese Lost Boys, and the struggles they faced, both in their home country, as well as the refugee camps in neighbouring countries – Ethiopia and Kenya – as well as the troubles they still face after relocation into America. While this is certainly one of the strengths of the novel (precious few other books are talking about modern Africa), it can also be a burden. The pacing is very inconsistent – it begins very strongly, the middle of the book drags on, and then the end happens very, very quickly.

I think that this attempt to inform occasionally gets in the way of Eggers’ atempt to tell a good story. While he makes extensive use of flashbacks, he is dealing with three different time periods, and they can get quite confusing after a while. Perhaps having spent so much time writing very postmodern books, a switch into realism was a bit tricky. Having said this, it is certainly an effective way to highlight both lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and the American parts are a really interesting look into integration of an entire culture into a new land, and the difficulties this throws up.

A quick note on some of the criticism this book, and Dave Eggers, has faced. A lot of people have complained that a white person should not have written this novel – one critic finds the novel’s “innocent expropriation of another man’s identity … a post-colonial arrogance.” I’m not sure how much collaboration Eggers and Deng actually had in writing the book – I suspect there was quite a lot – but I don’t think I really agree with Lee Siegel on this one. If you look at the other charity work Eggers has done over the years, I think this is just a larger part of Eggers’ attempt to inform as many people as he can.

In the end, I’m not totally enamoured with What is the What. It is not a bad book, and it is certainly an important book, but it took me a long time to connect with all of it. I certainly learned a lot about something I never really understood, so I suppose Eggers has done his job well.

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Heart of Darkness (1899) – Joseph CONRAD

So, here’s the first book I have to read this year. As such, forgive me if I go all English student on you. My bad. I have just had a lecture about this, let’s be fair, quite famous and controversial book. Well, controversial if you are in the book world. I don’t know about the rest of you people…

Heart of Darkness is a story within a story. While we being on the river Thames, we end up in the Congo River, in deepest darkest Africa (though maybe I’m not allowed to say that.) Marlowe, our intrepid hero, has been sent on a steamboat by ‘the Company’, in whose employ he finds himself, down the Congo River to find Mr. Kurtz, a renegade member of the Company, who is selling ivory, making a mint, and not giving the money to the Company.

The story itself is quite simple. It is Conrad’s style, however, that makes this book worthy of ‘classic’ (for want of a better word) novel status. While he is often considered a forerunner to the modernists (read: really hard to read 20th century literature), I found it to be deeply enjoyable. There are, of course, some quite dense parts, but when you read them carefully, the meaning behind them becomes clear, and really lucid.

Conrad is concerned with a whole load of things, including British colonialism, the inhabitants of Africa, and the effect this continent has on people. It is this last part that makes a real impression. On me, anyway. All of the characters (white ones, anyway) are not quite there in their head. The people running the Company in the Congo have become wild – almost reverted to their more natural, primeval states. Marlowe himself is not unaffected by this change – he also takes time to think about his own experiences in this crazy, very not-British land, and comes up with no definitive answers.

It is, however, the character of Mr. Kurtz who becomes the star of this novel. While having very little stage time, his presence and legend is woven throughout the whole (admittedly short) novel, and his journey from (assumed) normal life as a British man, into what he is at the end, is very, very important.

I’m going to refrain from getting any more technical than that, or I will start writing my assignment, and you don’t want to read that. I am, however, going to quickly talk about the controversy that surrounds this book. Famous African author, Chinua Achebe, attacked this novel in 1975, citing Conrad’s portrayal of the African people as racist. Now, I’m going to be honest, I don’t really see this. Conrad is, I think, no more racist than any other British person at the turn of the 20th century. Some of his descriptions of the native people are, let’s face it, quite shocking when you compare them to today’s world. But I wouldn’t have said racist.

Misogynistic, however… That I will give to Conrad.

Heart of Darkness is very good. It has withstood the test of the last century, and despite many other books attempting similar things (the exploration of the unknown continent, and all that) , this novel stands up as one of the best. Conrad’s characters, prose and narrative (the big three) are all going to leave a good impression. And, at less than 150 pages, it’s quick, too.

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