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Sunday, March 14, 2010

The history boy: Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy

I have been looking forward to Nadifa Mohamed’s debut novel Black Mamba Boy for a long time, not simply for its epic tale, but because I expected it to be an odd and wonderful form of life writing. That it is. It is a fictionalised biography – a life made into a novel – an act of love that is embellished here and there but fundamentally true and underpinned by a visceral understanding.

The Black Mamba Boy of the title is Jama, the author’s father and this novel tells his story. Jama is a 10-year-old Somali boy and his tale begins on the streets of Aden in the Yemen where he is alone and destitute and Africa is on the brink of war. His only hope of love and survival is to seek out his father, long disappeared and believed to be in far away Sudan. Thus, Jama begins a quest that will take him across continents, over oceans and into adulthood. He travels by foot, camel, lorry and train through Eritrea and Sudan – to Egypt and Palestine and finally to Port Talbot in Wales on a chilly September day in 1947 on board the notorious vessel the Runnymede Park. This is the story of how a child walked straight into a war zone and out the other side and its many faces include danger, brutality and desperation as well as strange moments of human kindness and a deep faith in the future.

The language and imagery of Nadifa Mohamed is not shy. It is proud, powerful, effusive and boldly used. The result is an overwhelming sense of time and place and a narrative voice that speaks loudly and clearly. This is particularly true of the book’s opening sequence, which evokes the heat and dust of Aden in 1935. This is a world a long way distant from our own – but it is conveyed here with real force and intelligence.

Jama’s paths are wild and dangerous and his concerns are the concerns of an exile and an innocent cut loose in a world of experience. He has a powerful sense of identity and a profound loyalty to the ideas of his parents and his people with which he wages a war against displacement. He has a desperate desire, as we all do, to believe in the myths and legends of his identity and the stories that underpin his world. He will not let them die – but will pursue them and the protection and meaning that they contain relentlessly. The unbreakable, almost mystical connection between the parent and the child and the need to craft a story out of a life is cleverly mirrored in the book itself – in which the daughter writes of the father in order “to make him a hero, not the fighting or romantic kind, but the real deal”.

As well as making him a hero, the author is “telling you this story so that I can turn my father’s blood and bones and whatever magic his mother sewed under skin into history”. That she does, for there are two stories here – Jama’s story and the story of a people. Like Jama the people are bombarded, brutalised and bewildered. This novel is a small chink of light on a vast and dark satellite stage – illuminating how the Second World War affected Africa. Historical insight comes from what Jama and boys like him actually did and how they were used. It also comes from gems of explanation within the text. My favourite is this:

“In Rome, Mussolini the opportunist, the failed primary school teacher, that syphilitic seller of ideas fallen from the back of a lorry, that gurning midget, counted how many hundreds, even thousands he would need to claim dead before Hitler would deign to cut him a slice of the victory cake”.
Jama, destitute boy and hero of history is also a very real boy and man. Mohamed develops his character through torment and survival into a hopeful and many layered being – a microcosm of his age and a living, breathing person upon the page. Black Mamba Boy is a deft novel and a telling piece of life writing. I have included a picture of the book and a picture of the author.

10 comments:

  1. Lovely lovely review :) This is my first time here :) I have put this book on my list for this year...I MUST read it. It sounds wonderful :)

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  2. Vaishnavi -

    Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. This book is harrowing at times but is a pleasure to read and a quite remarkable first novel - I hope that you enjoy it when you get around to it. Have a great week -

    Hannah

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  3. Thank you very much for bringing this book to my attention-as soon as I see it in paperback I will buy it-great review-

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  4. Great review! This book sounds like an interesting and compelling read. I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for it!

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  5. The cover to this book is absolutly gorgous! And i love the header to your blog.

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  6. Great review. This sounds like one I would enjoy reading.

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  7. Hello, Hannah. Thank you for visiting me ... when I was beginning to feel like nobody was out there! Your blog looks fascinating and I promise to return for a long read.

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  8. Thank you, Hannah, for such a well written review! This sounds like something I would like to read. The time period and setting especially intrigue me. I don't think it's out in the U.S. until this summer, but I've added it to my wish list just the same.

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  9. Thank you for commenting all - sorry for being slack in getting back to you!

    Mel U - I hope that you enjoy. My copy is in paperback.... I got it from amazon UK

    Dana - hope that you find it - it is such an unusual and interesting read

    Morgan - yes the book cover is nice isn't it - I must admit that i do like a good cover design... Thanks for the comment about my blog header

    Kathleen - I hope that you enjoy it and thank you for visiting

    Mary - welcome and please do visit again!

    Literary Feline - enjoy this book when it comes out in the states - I would love to read your thoughts on it eventually.

    Thanks all and enjoy your weeks!

    Hannah

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  10. Wow - this looks well outside my comfort zone, but definitely worth the trip. Thanks for the excellent review - I'll have to see if I can pick this up!

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