Downfall People

by Jo Anne William Bennett
316 pages,
ISBN: 0771011857

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Literary contests always seem dubious affairs: money and renown sparkle in the foreground, while the writing, however competent may take years to prove a sustained interest. After the contest comes the real competition.
Jo Anne Williams Bennett is the eighth recipient of the Seal Books first novel award, for her Downfall People (the name of a West African passenger lorry). Williams's protagonist, Likki Liddell. is on the run from herself ("at twenty-five she felt too old to admit bow badly things had gone") and an "unsatisfactory love affair" with a married man. On her way to teach in Kpama, West Africa, she meets - and later has a liaison with the sexually incompetent John Lavender, an insidious, Oxford post-doctoral linguistics expert doing field studies in the region. Likki's second affair while in Kpama, with the enigmatic Ibn Sinna, is both less predictable and more satisfying for her and the reader.
The attraction of this novel lies less with airy bald plot summary than with the tension that develops through a constant juxtaposition of opposites: characters, religions (Moslem, Christian, pagan), cultures. Mystery is an organizing motif in the story; it often illustrates its latency in disturbing terms: the discovery of a body in the bomba (septic tank), the strange deaths of nine soldiers, frequent stories of miracles, poisonings, and nonexistent animals. The cumulative interest in the story is that of our fascination with myth and legend, and the reassurance that not every organism or occurrence can be reduced to a scientific formula.
Despite the obvious possibilities for mythologizing, Williams counterpoints cultural veracities with a light, satiric tone and witty commentary: "Around them (Likki and John) on every side surged the urgent, pre-contractual Hobbesian horde"; "Africans simply used the forgers of their left hands, too earthy and simple a procedure for Westerners, who on the whole preferred to shit on their own literature." The contrasts between
serious and silly, men and women, blacks and whites, Africans and Americans are well balanced and give the impression that the reader just might remember the book long after the publicity machine is silenced.

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