Reviewed in The National English Literary Museum (NELM News No. 50) in Grahamstown, South Africa, December 2009
A pre-teen adventure story for adults, Nile Baby is a strange title for a strange tale. Two socially awkward twelve-year-olds, Alice Brass Khan and Arnie Binns, liberate a preserved foetus from the school science lab and the story unfolds around the powerful and uncanny effects that this scrap of humanity has on all who encounter it (or him). Woven into the plotline are themes of death, death’s effect on the living, belonging, family relationships, mothering, friendship, origins and more.
The blurb describes the novel as imaginatively daring, unusual and magnificent. Reviewers have singled out its links with Africa. The 90-or-so-year-old foetus in the Kerr jar is variously called the thing, the foetus, the baby and Fish, but the characters who encounter it all note that it has distinctive African features. The African connection is further explored through Alice’s absent and unknown Sudanese father Farouq Khan, Arnie’s absent father’s Nigerian girlfriend Katrina and the Jamaican taxi driver Jim Noelson. The theme of African origins is introduced early:
She gives one last push to make sure it’ll stay put, propped against its wall of glass and it’s like something cold knocks into her, something jolts her. Sliding her eyes up from the chest where her stick still pokes to the – the almost face, she sees as clear as clear can be that the thing could be a kid like her, almost like her, Alice. Her, that is, not just any kid but a kid like her, not wholly from here, England, but African, half Africa, demi-semi-African. (p. 10).
The narrative alternates between third person when Alice is the focaliser and first person when Arnie is telling his side of the story and both points of view have the childlike tone evident in the quoted passages. The reader thus sees the world through the eyes of these odd twelve-year-olds. Both are misfits. Alice the clever and curious boffin with her bag of knives and interest in dissecting specimen and often refers to her gentle friend as barmy Arnie.
It is Arnie who goes on a physical journey with the Kerr jar containing Fish (as he names the foetus) and makes some startling discoveries. Alice’s journey is one of self-discovery. To say more would be to give away too much and spoil the Dickensian-like surprise at the end.
This novel is more than a macabre adventure story. Embedded in the text are layers of meaning. There are, for example, repeated references to archeology and ancient remains and some strange graveyard scenes. There are also poignant insights on the need to belong or “fit in” (p. 176) and a moving portrayal of friendship. In Arnie’s words:
And I thought about how life catches you unawares. How, while you’re looking the other way, a whole chapter in your life has been noiselessly winding itself down – a chapter about being twelve-and-a-half and searching for your Dad and minding an alien visitor and finding out at the end of your journey that your place is with your friend… or friends. (p. 264)
Reviewed in The Independent By Angela Smith, Friday, 31 October 2008
The title of Elleke Boehmer’s novel might lead the reader to expect that the protagonist will prove to be a contemporary Moses, leading his people out of bondage to an imperial power. After all, Boehmer published Mandela: A Very Short Introduction in July, so that the theme must have been on her mind. The epigraphs, from a poem by David Constantine and from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, darken this expectation. If the “dead trail with the living still,” perhaps the book will focus, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, on those who didn’t escape slavery.
One of the many surprises in Nile Baby is its skilful manipulation of readerly expectations. The baby of the title is not hidden among the river’s bulrushes, but a foetus preserved in formalin since the First World War. The two 12-year-old misfits who “liberate” it from their school’s laboratory storeroom begin a three-way relationship that is grotesque, unstoppable and totally unpredictable.
Alice Brass Khan, who excels in science, recognises her own African cheekbones in the foetus as soon as she and Arnie Binns drag it from its jar. The incision she makes in its shrivelled belly seems almost like an act of self-harm and horrifies Arnie, who is concerned with the welfare of the foetus’s soul. For the first time, their friendship is disrupted and begins to affect their apparently dysfunctional families.
The foetus takes on a life of its own, paradoxically as it begins to decay. In his desperate search for a resting place for the ancient baby, Arnie travels to find his father in Leeds and discovers instead his father’s Igbo partner, who recognises the significance of scars on its shoulders.
They tell her that it was an ogbanje child, one that was constantly born to the same mother and repeatedly died in infancy. This incarnation, though it ended prematurely, reveals the interweaving of Europe and Africa, leading Alice to speculate about the skeleton of the African soldier, “unearthed on a dig, who fought for the Roman army in Britain. Like the threads of the plot, the threads of this kind of interleaving can’t be tied up tidily.
Boehmer’s eye for domestic detail and ear for the nuances of speech whisk the reader in and out of different ways of being. Alice’s mother’s past is evoked in her “consistent claim that her two daughters sprang from the seed of that bloke on the wall,” though Farouq Khan couldn’t stand the weather in England and left. Nile Baby is neither knowing nor ironic, since the main perspective is the puzzled Arnie’s – as he gradually realises that life is shaped in unforeseen ways by history.
© The Independent 31.10.08
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