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book review

Melanie Schnell's first novel, set in the tumultuous political and geographical Sudanese landscape, explores the journey of two women who are captured and released, several times, from various forms of enslavement. Adut, a Dinka woman, is taken into slavery by the Muslim north in 1995. Relegated to a life of drudgery in which – much to Master Wife's chagrin – she bears her captor two children, Adut naively attempts to escape four years later, only to be caught and brutally punished. Though unsuccessful in her first attempt, through the help of her friend Nyikoc, and her long-lost father, she eventually succeeds in her emancipation, not only from slavery, but also poverty.

The second first-person narrator is Sandra, a young Canadian woman who has come to Sudan to escape a failed marriage. While recovering from a car accident, Sandra becomes fixated on a magazine photograph of newly freed slaves. She is drawn to the country in the hopes of finding the slave-girl in the photograph, to whom she feels an inexplicable connection, and whose "pain crosses over and into" her already shattered heart.

Schnell cleverly juxtaposes and parallels the two main characters and two continents throughout the novel. Adut comes from North Africa, where polygamy, illiteracy and a patriarchal social and economic system debilitate already overburdened minority Dinka women caught in a gory civil war. Sandra, though academically gifted, chooses a life of bar waitressing to support her musician husband, whose betrayal inadvertently prompts her journey to Africa.

Interestingly, after her car accident, Sandra bears a scar on her face, a metaphor for "unsuccessful" North American women? Women, who, in a world of Oprah you-can-have-it-all gratifications, "fail" to capitalize on western feminism's dubious progress? Free to make her own choices, Sandra makes a series of ill-informed decisions which nearly cost her life. Adut, who is shoved around like the cattle the Dinka people rely on for their livelihood, has very few choices; her minority status and gender place her at the very lowest social stratum. For all their differences, Schnell's relentless depiction of the physical, emotional and mental anguish both narrators endure twins the women in an unexpected camaraderie of suffering.

Inexorable descriptions of this suffering would be arduous to read were it not for Schnell's skillful ability to balance out the thrum of painful intensity that runs throughout the prose with gently asserted control. Her prose is confrontational: Adut says to Sandra: "Did you think you could escape the debt of grief that this land carries? Did you think you could come here and then leave, untouched?"

At the same time – as heralded by the title – Schnell's style is rooted in the North African landscape, in its sun, sky, dust, song, blood, moons, cattle and flesh. Though the time-shifts can be a bit confusing and distracting, for readers who pay close attention – and who know Sudan's fraught history – the temporal leaps will be easy to navigate, while providing insight into one of the most fascinating and troubling places under the sun.