Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

Wife of the Gods: A Novel

This first in a series about Detective Darko Dawson of Accra in Ghana made me change my mind. I wanted to read this book ever since I saw it in a bookstore a couple of years ago and was thrilled to be able to dip into it when I came across the audio version this summer. When I first listened to it, I was interrupted three-quarters of the way in and had to set the book aside. I didn’t really mind because midway through the novel I found myself wondering if I should trust Darko Dawson: he turned out to be a less disciplined police officer than makes me comfortable and he used physical force in a truly unsettling way—so that I thought he was unreliable and unsympathetic.

Later, I realized I couldn’t write a review. I was unhappy with the novel, but had taken no quotes to buttress my reaction, so I reread the hardcover, paying especial attention to those areas I thought the central character out of line. Shortly after the point at which I put the book down the first time, I discovered the main character’s activities were likewise disparaged by his boss, who also happened to be “the authorities.” Darko was suspended from work, and censored. That soothed my ruffled feathers and sense of justice, and I finished the book thinking it was a prime example of intercultural learning: the author had written a western-style police procedural set in Ghana, a country with very different cultural mores and habits. I thought it a great success.

The story is as follows: A female AIDS-worker who walks between villages is found strangled in the jungle. Suspected are young men who have shown interest in her single status, AIDS carriers who deny their own status, a local herbalist who suspects she seeks to steal his secrets. Life in Ghana is different, very different, from western life-styles, but murder has the usual suspects: greed, jealousy, sex, money, and resentment or vengeance.

One thing that surprised me was the shock and dismay of a Ghanaian discovering someone was having sex in the jungle. I would have thought that would be a logical place to go if one couldn’t use one’s own home. But no:
”Intimacy in the forest was all right with the gods provided it took place under a roof of some kind.”
Consequently, four poles and a tarp kept everyone happy.

When reading mystery novels set in a country other than one’s own, the reader may enjoy many details of everyday life that bring an unfamiliar region to life. Quartey was successful in introducing us to life in Ghana, but his writing had neither the gentle philosophical guidance of an author like Alexander McCall-Smith (writing about Botswana), nor the furious pace and insistent characterizations of an author like Deon Meyer (writing about South Africa). However, the cultural detail here is fascinating and authentic-sounding and I think the author has broken new ground. When one is not merely copying someone else’s style, one may legitimately be called “an original.”

The audio version of this novel was narrated by Simon Prebble. Simon Prebble is a five-star audiobook reader and I think he did a fabulous job reading the Dick Francis novels, my first real foray into audiobooks. For a long time afterward I only wanted books he read. However, in the case of this book, I didn’t think his plummy voice suited the characters of this novel, and wished the audio publishers had made a greater effort to find someone with an appropriate accent for the region.

The second book in the series, Children of the Street, is available in paperback, or ebook now. The third book in the series is due out in 2012.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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