The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison
The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison (Quercus/, 2014) sees us in sunny Zambia with Zoe Fleming, an idealistic American lawyer and all-round do-gooder. She becomes involved in the case of Kuyeya Mizinga—a fifteen-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome who is raped and dumped in a poor part of Lusaka. Our heroine teams up with local policeman Joseph Kabuta and, before you can say Jack Robinson, they are hot on the trail of a very high-profile suspect with all the right political connections to be able to avoid prosecution and/or conviction. So this is part legal thriller as our duo try to accumulate enough evidence to trigger a prosecution, part political drama in two countries (obviously the Zambian prosecutors are not overjoyed at the possibility of trying someone this senior and our heroine is the daughter of a US presidential candidate) and part thriller as a faintly menacing thug tracks our investigative duo and, well, threatens them (is that a snake? Oooh how scary). There’s a surprising amount of information about HIV and the strange set of attitudes that seems to pervade the response of those in Africa to this particular disease. Although the book does not offer any particular explanation for this denialist approach to the disease and treatments, it does at least highlight the dramatic effect it has on the populations in the different states, and the one or two key individuals caught up in this human rights plot. There’s also discussion of the general reluctance to use DNA evidence to prosecute for sexual offences in general and child abuse in particular. The way in which this culture relates to children with physical and mental disabilities will be distressing to some readers, i.e. there are a number of superstitions that such children are born disabled as a result of curses or the general application of witchcraft. There’s also the mandatory romance which, for reasons you may be able to predict, does not run as smoothly as you might expect.
I think the best way to characterise this heroine is as crusading saint. She’s a modern Mother Teresa with taekwondo skills should she meet nonbelievers. Because her father is a senior senator, she has the status to command the powers-that-be in Washington. This gives her a platform from which she can preach a sermon about the essential capacity of the human being for nobility of spirit. Yes, once the need is perceived, the human being will instinctively be generous, put petty prejudices and dogmatism to one side, and either give the money or do whatever is necessary to rescue poor people from their abject state of neediness and elevate them to a state where they can, for once, be treated with respect.
I found the tone of the book rather tiresome with everyone divided into the noble lot, the despicable lot, and the lot that might be pushed into doing the right thing if they get protection from the consequences. This is not to say I’m against message books per se, but I prefer my reading to have some connection to the real world. If this situation actually occurred, the politically powerful family would simply order their paid thugs to disappear the inconvenient investigators and their witnesses. The idea they would sit there and allow a foreign woman and a local policeman to embarrass them is ludicrous. The cover-up would be swift and not wholly hidden. Such a family would want to send a deterrent message to anyone else who might be tempted to threaten their interests in the future.
So, sadly, this is a book determined to sell a completely unrealistic message of hope. The corrupt families in these foreign countries can be brought down by American-inspired interventionism based on the rule of law. Medical knowledge can be allowed to help those currently oppressed by the bigoted and prejudiced. And, back in America, political extremists can be shamed into helping the scroungers and freeloaders they despise. And pigs may soon be equipped with wings. In other words, The Garden of Burning Sand will only be of interest to those who inhabit a bubble in which wish-fulfillment is the norm.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.