Posted by Paul Samael on Friday, November 9, 2018 Under: Book reviews
The Prancing Jacana by Steven John Halasz is (for me at any rate) what Graham Greene liked to call “an entertainment”: it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it has an intriguing thriller-style plot that ticks along at a nice pace, but it’s also written with a literary sensibility and manages to deal with some serious issues along the way.
Caroline Parker, a best-selling American author of crime fiction, has set her latest novel in Senegal – where it has just been banned, having offended the conservative muslim community there because its lead character is a gay detective (oh, and for good measure, his sister has also helped an imam’s daughter to get an abortion). Initially, the ban seems like a good way of generating additional publicity for the book – so somewhat naively, Caroline accepts an invitation to travel to Senegal to do a radio interview there. She also hopes it will be a nice break for her slightly neurotic husband, Robert, an author of children’s books who is currently wrestling with writer’s block over his latest work, “Mouse and Snake” (Robert’s publishers are adamant that Snake has to eat Mouse because, well, that’s what snakes do and, as he is sternly admonished by his commissioning editor, “these days….we do not lie to children”).
Unbeknownst to Caroline, she has attracted the interest of not only the US government, which is looking to use her as "bait” in a trap – but also a group of hackers intent on thwarting what the government is up to. So it probably won’t come as too much of a surprise that her interview in Dakar doesn’t go entirely according to plan – but things don’t go entirely according to plan for the US government either. Meanwhile, Robert, who is far from comfortable in foreign climes, finds himself having to enlist the help of the group of hackers who are also on Caroline’s trail. There is even a Senegalese police captain who also happens to be gay. Anyway, once the plot had got going, I found it pretty hard to put down.
As I say, the novel doesn’t take itself too seriously and there are many moments of wry humour. But it also raises some serious issues about Western engagement with developing countries (or “shitholes” as the current Leader of the Free World is, sadly, wont to call them). I suppose the key question it poses is whether the West has any business at all meddling in countries like Senegal. I’m not convinced that it’s tenable to answer that question with a straight “no”, because then you are effectively just shrugging your shoulders in response to appalling terrorist atrocities like the hostage beheading depicted at the start of the novel. On the other hand, depending how it’s done, Western engagement is quite capable of making a bad situation worse – as we saw in Iraq. So it needs to be done judiciously, with a high degree of sensitivity and respect for the country concerned and a desire to improve people's lives there (not just to make the world safer for Westerners).
But what I liked about the novel was that it doesn’t duck the complexities of all this. For example, you could argue that Caroline’s use of Senegal as the setting for her novel is primarily a way of dressing up tired old crime fiction tropes in new and exciting clothing to titillate Western readers – and that she should have been more sensitive to the likely reaction in Senegal itself. But does this justify her ordeal? Hardly. And how will countries like Senegal ever come to terms with issues like homosexuality if even a fictional depiction of it is considered totally off limits? So I was pleased to see the gay Senegalese police captain sneaking off with a copy of her banned book at the end (I should add that this isn’t much of a plot spoiler – you will note that I haven’t told you what happens to any of the other characters).
At the time of writing, The Prancing Jacana was available free of charge from Smashwords (but this can sometimes change).
In : Book reviews
Tags: "the prancing jacana" "steven jon halasz"
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