Anyone who has been following my Orange Prize journey this year will know that, of all the books on the 2010 longlist, I was most sceptical about Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed. My enthusiasm waned further as other bloggers and commenters began to admit defeat by it (although I must mention that at least one reader I respect has enjoyed it). I consoled myself that at least it was short; I could get it over with quickly and move on. This I have duly done. Has the book changed my mind now that I have read it? Am I a convert? Well, no. But also, yes. Maybe. If nothing else the book has won the expectations game; I was anticipating something so difficult to connect with that I was grateful and pleasantly surprised to find it (mostly) readable and intermittently moving.
The prologue gets it off to an overwrought but undeniably touching start. I am my father's griot, this is a hymn to him, Mohamed's narrator says, I am telling you this story so that I can turn my father's blood and bones, and whatever magic his mother sewed under this skin, into history. I say 'Mohamed's narrator', but what I really mean is just Mohamed. Black Mamba Boy is a fictionalisation of the odyssey her real-life father Jama made as a boy in the 1930s and 1940s when he travelled alone from Aden to Egypt, and then embarked for the world on a Royal Navy ship. It is clear (both from the book itself and from interviews with Mohamed) that father-Jama and character-Jama are one and the same, and that the course of incidents in the narrative are closely based on his real-life experiences. Of course there are embellishments from history and imagination, but the way the book is built up, with episodes roughly strung together, shows its origins in memory.
Jama is born in British Somaliland in the 1920s, but lives the first ten years of his life amidst the multicultural clamour of Aden where his mother has found work in a coffee factory. His father, Guure, left mother and son when Jama was just an infant in the hope of finding good work to support them but has never returned. Without any ordering influence Jama lives a wild life, running in packs with other boys his age, stealing, begging, and scavanging where and what he can. The world as he knows it is abundant with variety; the multi-cultural, multi-lingual streets of Aden are alive with Yemenis, Somalis, Eritreans, Sudanese, Europeans, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Muslims. This is an Africa without borders, where men and their families migrate for work almost constantly, travelling along support networks formed by clan and kin. The reasons for this vast movement of peoples are numerous: poverty, famine, interclan feuds, war, the hope for a better life elsewhere. For Jama it is the sudden death of his mother when he is ten years old that sets him off upon his epic journey. He goes first to the home of his mother's family in Somaliland, but very soon embarks on an epic quest to find his missing father, who is rumoured to be working for the Italian army in Eritrea. What follows is an extraodinary tale of endurance, luck and the kindness of strangers, as Jama moves from town to town, from country to country, from the floor of one clansman or woman to another, using whatever means of transport are available to him. He takes work where he needs to: in just a few short years he carries carcasses for an abbattoir, sweeps floors in a teashop and skivvies as an office boy for an Italian officer. During the second world war he witnesses terrible acts of violence and racism as a boy-soldier, including the brutal murder of one his best friends. No doubt it is a story worth the telling.
But not like this. The main problem for me, I think, is that Black Mamba Boy is not a novel. It is an exercise in creative non-fiction, and the two are not the same thing. As I was reading I couldn't help but feel that Mohamed might have written a much better book, ten times better, if she had sat down and started again. Not on a novel to 'turn' her father 'into history', but on a biography based upon his experiences that wedded memory with geography, anthropology and history. That way she could have side-stepped all the awkwardnesses of the novel - the clumsy foreshadowing, the elliptical narrative shifts, the baroque sentimentality - and written all the research she has evidently done upfront rather than having to slip it clumsily between the lines. I've said before that I don't like reading fiction that is overly biographical, not because I think writing from life is cheating, but because I think it is very rare that real life a good novel makes. Novels have structure and character development, they have build-up and tension and incidents in all the right places, and then they have a climax. They have these things because their shape is artificial. Real life isn't like fiction, not even if the life is as crammed with terror and incident and courage as Jama's. If Black Mamba Boy was a novel written from nothing, without the biographical imperative, but set in the same time and place, I think it would look very different. The drama would be in different places for better effect, and such long periods of time wouldn't pass with nothing happening (except where theme or the plot arc demanded it).
I also must admit a difficulty with the prose. The book is adjective heavy and languid with description, in a writing style that is often called 'poetic', although I hesitate to use that word. I hesitate because I never felt comfortable in the skin of the book; I never felt that it rarely moved beyond careful artifice into a natural flow. I'm sure this is as much a matter of preference as anything else, and there were parts that I liked very much. The evocation of setting is often strong; for example, Jama's first sight of Somaliland:
Somaliland was yellow, intensely yellow, a dirty yellow, with streaks of brown and green. A group of men stood next to their herd of camels while the lorry overheated, its metal grill grimacing under an acacia tree. There was no smell of food, or incense or money as there was in Aden, there were no farms, no gardens, but there was a sharp sweetness to the air he breathed in, something invigorating, intoxicating.
But equally there are passages which seem stilted and uncertain, as though Mohamed has tried too hard to make them beautiful. There are similes which jar from the first page. A dying woman's heart is like 'a butterfly in a cocoon', an image which conjures fretful hopeful new life and not the feeble pain of last moments. And then there are similes which prompt a knee-jerk cringe: an explosive hurtles with 'indecent speed to fertilise the ovum of extermination within Jama, until finally one snub-nosed spermatozoa found his hiding place.' It is unfortunate that this line from the book will stay with me by virtue of its ridiculousness long after other better lines have faded.
Despite all my reservations, however, I can see why the judges felt able to longlist the book for the Orange. Black Mamba Boy has a big heart, and it tells the story of a time and of places which we are apt to forget or marginalise. Although it is not enough that the subject a novel is worthy of our attention, in this case it must count for something.