A Dancer in the Dust

Written by Thomas H Cook

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

A Dancer in the Dust
Head of Zeus
RRP: £7.99
Released: June 4, 2014

Of all the writers who have tried to portray, even explain Africa to the western world Cook could be the most perceptive. Writing in the first person as a risk assessment consultant, Ray Campbell: middle-aged, cultured New Yorker, recalls his introduction to a fictitious Lubanda twenty years ago. Raw and idealistic he came to dig a well only to fall hopelessly in love with Martine, a subsistence farmer descended from a Belgian colonist.

Martine was a simple soul, part animal, part sage and, although white, wholly African in her own eyes. Her nationality was Lubandan, she dressed, talked and ate like a local woman. She had not gone native, she was native. The young Campbell was enthralled.

An emergent nation, Lubanda had suffered exploitation from colonists and their successors in too short a span for any equilibrium to be established and throughout Campbell’s brief sojourn he was to witness that kind of transition from tyranny to ostensibly benign dictatorship with which we have become familiar. Under a new regime aid poured into the country, accepted unconditionally by the current genial president hell bent on modernising: building schools and hospitals, steam-rollering his people out of poverty, replacing subsistence farming with lucrative coffee. And there he came up against Martine who bartered her produce with nomads and market people, who had no use for cash except to buy a book, no concept of luxury other than time to read it. Martine was the ultimate environmentalist, and dangerous because, not only did she stand in the way of Progress, she could write.

Campbell saw the risk she posed to the president and his unruly thugs and concocted a cunning conspiracy to save her. The outcome resulted in his return to the States with a load of guilt that was to haunt him until, twenty years later, a Lubandan came back from the past to be murdered in a New York flophouse. Recklessly, although now a risk manager, Campbell investigated the death, uncovering a link with Martine and his unbearable guilt that would drive him back to Lubanda in an attempt to bring closure as much to that misguided country as to himself.

An astounding book; the violence that we have come to associate with despots and their vengeful opponents paling before the grand theme of atonement and the kind of elegant writing that leaves the horrors to our imagination. Cook’s searchlight has wandered over the heart of Africa and come back to rest on ourselves. As he says, quoting Martine: “The crimes of evil are well known to history. It is the crimes of goodness that go largely unrecorded.”


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