Melanie Finn's second novel, The Gloaming, sends prosperous Westerners to eerie, treacherous Africa. Miraculously, Finn avoids every clich` about first- versus third-world problems. In this richly textured, intricately plotted novel, she assures us that heartbreak has the same shape everywhere ” especially if it involves the grief of losing a child.
Thirty-two-year-old Pilgrim Jones (the name courtesy of hippie parents) is an American who lives an idyllic life in small-town Switzerland until her husband, a world-renowned human rights lawyer, leaves her for another woman. Pilgrim had believed her marriage proudly and happily childless, so she's stunned when her ex immediately starts a family with his new wife. Things get much worse when Pilgrim kills three children in a car accident and she's ostracised in her town. Attempting an African safari as an escape, she abruptly decides to leave the group and, numb and brittle, finds herself alone in Tanzania, coping with"the intense vertigo of a totally blank future."
The novel's chapters alternate between Switzerland at the time of the accident and the tiny Tanzanian town of Magulu, where Pilgrim lands, seemingly at random:"It could be that I have nowhere to go, so I am here." In Switzerland, a kindly detective tries to help her come to terms with the car crash ” and falls in love with her as he confronts the common cold of first-world problems, an unhappy marriage. In Tanzania, Pilgrim meets a policeman without any tools to enforce social order, a sociopathic Ukrainian mercenary and an American divorc`e who is trying to set up an orphanage for children with AIDS. All turn out to be haunted by their own tragedies involving children, struggling with guilt or an unquenchable desire for retribution.
Born in Kenya, Finn lived in Tanzania while helping to film the nature documentary The Crimson Wing, and she demonstrates an insider's command of the terrain. The Gloaming is chillingly cinematic in contrasting East Africa's exquisite landscape with the region's human needs ” not just the hungry children in rags torturing dogs for entertainment but the makeshift nature of a society in which doctors have scant access to drugs and even the mortuary has no electricity, so corpses must be stored in a fish factory."When you understand this country," a Tanzanian doctor warns Pilgrim,"you know you cannot ever understand it."
The climate may be scorching, but Finn's prose is cool and precise. Evocative as her descriptions are of sunlight,"hot and white and unrelenting as a strobe," and labyrinthine caves where people get lost and die, she doesn't linger; her plot has real momentum. After the arrival of a box of body parts from a murdered albino, the grisly evidence of a traditional curse, everyone suspects it was intended for Pilgrim, although she has shared nothing about her past.
When Pilgrim disappears, the novel jump cuts to the people who converge in Africa seeking to either hurt or help her. In sorting through their motives, The Gloaming delivers a searing taxonomy of loss, and shows the way it leads to a cycle of violence. By the novel's surprising end, Finn even sheds light on the motives of sadistic rebels who laconically announce they're about to kill a victim ” then demand a tip to make the death painless. Early on, Pilgrim's husband, who has spent his career sorting through files of atrocities, tells her that"violence becomes an identity, how people see themselves in the world, and to ask them to stop being violent is to ask them to erase themselves." Yet even in a malevolent setting, Finn shows us acts of selflessness and redemption. Her fascination with the duality of Africa ”"the most honest place on earth" ” shines fiercely.