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Richard Bausch: Hello to the Cannibals

This was an interesting attempt but it really did not quite work. It tells the story of two women, separated by a century. The first is a real life character – Mary Kingsley, niece of Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, daughter of the traveller, George Kingsley, but best known in her own right as a traveller to Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, a period when women did not travel on their own to Bournemouth, let alone to Africa. She travelled to places in Africa where no European had been, male or female, befriended and tried to help the Fang who, as the title indicates, were cannibals, and showed herself to be brave, intrepid and resourceful, finally dying from fever contracted when working as nurse in South Africa during The Boer War. We follow her story from her early teens to her death, in third person narrative, letters and in letters she writes to some unknown correspondent in the future.

Coupled with this story is the story of a fictitious American woman, Lily Austin, living a century later. Lily is the daughter of two actors who, at the beginning of the novel get divorced, her father marrying a man about the same age as Lily. Lily is an only child and somewhat solitary, like Mary Kingsley (who had a younger brother), keen on her studies, upset by both an attempted rape on her, when she was fourteen, by the grandfather of her best friend and by her parents’ divorce. At college, she meets Dominic, whom she had met briefly in her earlier life. They become friends (but not lovers). She then meets Tyler, to whom she is very much attracted but, though he seems to show an interest, he is not around and, in particular, he is not around when she has a one night stand with Dominic. But when Tyler does reappear, they fall in love and soon get married. Tyler has baggage (his mother dumped him when she fell in love with another man and became pregnant and he was brought up by his control freak father). More particularly, Lily finds out that Tyler is her room-mate Sheri’s half-brother. He decides to go back to his mother and he and a pregnant Lily move down to Mississippi and move in with Sheri and her husband, Nick, and Tyler’s mother and stepfather, Buddy, with Tyler working for Buddy in his car dealership.

Things, of course, go wrong with everyone seemingly with the wrong partner, one person dead and Tyler and Lily splitting up. Lily has written a play about Mary Kingsley but, at the end, lots of loose ends are left hanging. You have to ask, so what? If there is a tie between Mary Kingsley and Lily Austin, it is subtle. They are both solitary, intelligent women, caught up in a male world, and more or less struggle successfully to survive in it. Mary ends up dead and Lily unsure of her fate. They write letters to each other, Kingsley, obviously, not knowing to whom she is writing. Bausch says in a postscript that the novel is about friendship but I don’t see it. I think you would be better off reading Kingsley’s own writings and the biography of her, rather than Bausch’s invented writings by and about her. As for Lily, frankly, you might feel sorry for her but, really, it is difficult to feel much else for her.

Publishing history

First published 2002 by HarperCollins