Described as an autobiographical novel, this book is narrated in the first person and reads like a memoir. But it is a "memoir" charged with atmosphere, imagery, and longing. The narrator is an American woman, a mother of three children, and the wife of an academic. After an absence of 17 years she has returned to Niger--the country in northwestern Africa where she had lived with her three small children and husband, while the latter was completing his doctoral dissertation. Now she is visiting her oldest child, Zara, who has been living for the past two years in Niger, and working in a medical clinic.

As the narrator reacquaints herself with the culture and climate of the country, she re-visits--in memory--young motherhood, her relationship with the six-year-old Zara, and her interactions with the people and surroundings. The novel shifts back and forth between the past and the present Niger while the narrator attempts to integrate her experiences: she sees the country and her daughter through new eyes.

She is overwhelmed with guilt about what she calls her "inattention" (17 years ago) to the lives of the Nigerans around her; guilt about her failure to learn the native language; guilt toward her children, for her own self absorption. "After all, what was I doing the year we lived in Zinder [the city where they had lived]? That is the question that looms between Zara and me . . . Of what was I thinking? It is not enough to say that instead of working in a clinic [as Zara now does] I was spending my days with Lizzie and Tulu and herself. That doesn't answer it. All of Zinder waited beyond the gate." (71)

The narrator watches with admiration and envy as Zara interacts comfortably, even intimately, with the native women and their children, speaks the language fluently, and negotiates her way with self assurance in this foreign land. Not only does the narrator feel inept, she feels that she has "lost Zara to a world in which I am entirely a stranger." (73) Thus cultural dislocation becomes the trigger for intense reflections on the nature of parenthood, and the female experience of marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, and aging. These reflections are magnified by the narrator's loss of her own mother, who has recently died.

The native women that she meets through Zara help her to understand that some of these experiences transcend cultures, even though their surface manifestations may differ. For example, the often hyper-critical attitude toward first born children, and the refusal of native parents to even utter the name of the first born child relates to the shame associated with this evidence that the mother has lost her virginity. "Shame is the right word, exactly," thinks the narrator, "and I wonder now that I have not stumbled on this knowledge before." (77) But more than the "thorough and irrevocable . . . violation of the space around one's skin" it is the associated separation from the mother that the narrator recognizes as being at the core of sexual awakening; it is this inevitable separation from her own daughter that she is now trying to absorb.


This imaginative and thoughtful book is interesting both for its wonderful descriptions of the people and landscape that constitute the sub-Saharan country, and for its perceptive reflections on the relationship between mothers and daughters, parents and children through the stages of a life-cycle. Those interested in global health and the culture of this region of Africa will certainly find the book of value.

In addition to reflections on motherhood, the author addresses the important question of how one balances the obligation to one's family and self with obligations to society. This is a question that all adults must ask themselves, but it may be particularly acute for those who are engaged in the "helping professions" such as medicine.


Northwestern Univ. Press: TriQuarterly

Place Published

Evanston, Ill.



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