Dr Livingstone becomes a dead weight: Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

Out of Darkness, Shining Light Petina Gappah

Faber, pp.308, £16.99

The scope of Petina Gappah’s impressive novel is laid out in the prologue: the death of the Victorian explorer David Livingstone and the ferrying of his desiccated body by loyal servants to the East African coast, so it could be returned in glory to his native Britain. A passage in Herodotus sent Livingstone on a fruitless search for four mythical fountains which he believed were the source of the Nile. Out of Darkness, Shining Light restores the identities, personalities and passions of his unruly household, whose funerary quest is carried out with a courage and sense of honour that aligns them with classical heroes rather than servants. They even cry ‘The sea, the sea!’ on reaching their goal, the town of Bagamoyo.

The narrative is shared unequally (in a tale that has much to say about inequality) between Halima, Livingstone’s gossipy cook, and Jacob Wainwright, an earnest Christian convert much given to Biblical quotation and exhortation. Halima has a shrewd eye for Jacob’s foibles, marking his sweaty propensity to wear western suits in even the hottest weather. In contrast, Halima, like most women, is beneath Jacob’s notice, but the devil has some fleshly torments in store for this zealot.

It is Halima who objects to burying ‘Bwana Daudi’ (Master David) in Chitambo, where he died. ‘His soul will not rest easy,’ she warns, adding shrewdly: ‘And then there is the money… there is sure to be a large purse waiting’ for his faithful servants if they complete the grisly task.

With the body eviscerated and salted, the 69-strong procession, including porters, armed guards, female partners and a few children, sets off to cover a distance of 1,500 miles. They are a quarrelsome bunch, and there will be many setbacks on the 285-day trek, including sickness, death, accident, attack by wild animals and a pitched battle.

Throughout the territory they traverse, Indians and Arabs vie with African tribes for dominance. The route is plagued by ferocious, non-white slave traders. Everywhere a shocked Jacob observes piles of bones, the remains of their discarded and starved victims. With the exception of Bwana Daudi and Bwana Stanley, the few white men they encounter are mean-spirited, irritants rather than threats, but they are merely the first of a damaging flood. Is the battered little troupe’s loyalty misplaced? A crushing event shows they have unwittingly brought along with them a monstrous evil; but its precise nature is left to the reader to ponder.

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