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Norman Rush: Mating

Mating was Rush’s first novel, after his book of stories. It is set in Botswana in the 1980s and is narrated by an unnamed 32 year old female anthropology student. She had started work on a thesis on nutrition, specifically that fertility in remote-dwelling populations fluctuates according to the season because a large part of what they eat depends on what they can find when they go out gathering. However, she couldn’t do her thesis, as gathering no longer existed, as the population was getting food that didn’t need gathering. For that reason and some personal reasons, she contemplates returning to the United States. Before doing so, however, she rests a bit and tells us something of herself, including the three affairs she has had. Then she hears that Nelson Denoon is surreptitiously in the country. She also hears that he has set up a secret community, called Tsau, for abused and destitute African women.

Denoon is famous for being brilliant, for being what the narrator calls interdisciplinary, for being an expert on the etiology of poverty and for having written Development as the Death of Villages. She knows that she wants to see him and see his community, so she sets out across the Kalahari desert on her own to find him. When she does find him, she is very impressed, both by his intellectual stature and commitment but also as a lover, as she soon becomes his lover. Much of the novel is about the interaction between the two – sexual and emotional, of course, but primarily intellectual, as they discuss his project but also many other intellectual topics. It all seems ideal but she soon realises that, despite the idyllic nature of Tsau, she doesn’t really fit, either with the black women or the white man.

For many readers, this book may be too intellectual and, at times, you feel that Rush is writing a thesis rather than a novel. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating read and a fascinating account both of a utopian society but also, as the title states, male-female relationships. The unnamed narrator (not naming her is something of a conceit) raises many questions about mating in her dealings with Denoon though whether Rush’s statement that I wanted to create the most fully realized female character in the English language has succeeded is certainly open to question. However, this is certainly a book that will make you stop and think and that is what we should ask of any novel.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Knopf