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Review: Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

black mamba boy mohamed Review: Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

Ten year old Jama, protagonist of Nadifa Mohameds Orange Prize short listed Black Mamba Boy, is a boy of multiple stories, multiple lives, and multiple names. All of these are significant, but the last, with its wink towards a potential prophetic learning: in addition to his given name, Jama also goes by the nickname Goode, or black mamba, for the time when one such deadly snake slithered over his mother's pregnant belly, but with benign consequences. The name is indicative of Jama's luck, his verve, his ability to survive in the most pressing, abject circumstances, and it's a name that over time he internalises, gradually allowing it to inform the decisions he makes in this astonishing narrative, a fictionalised account of the early years of the life of Mohameds father.

Jama is one of a group of rambunctious street boys whose territory limns the winding streets of Aden, Yemen; for Jama, however, this delineation soon becomes claustrophobic, and he gradually stretches his purview to extend through the length of eastern Africa, embarking upon an Odyssey-like journey to find his father, a notoriously wanderlust-ridden man who has been absent from Jama's life for as long as he can remember. Jama's seemingly endless trek, which occurs during the swelling danger of World War II, and is beset not only with endemic poverty and hunger, but also with startling accounts of the cruel, lazy violence of the Italian fascists, takes him through Somaliland, Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, and Egypt before thrusting him amongst the British as a lackey on a ship charged with deporting Jewish concentration camp survivors. Themes of displacement, migration, and the search not only for one's true home, but the identity associated with this home are rife throughout the book as the unsettled Jama constantly seeks new worlds to replace the last, which inevitably proves unfulfilling or intolerable, reinventing himself time and time again as he does so.

It's a combination of Jama's flexible identity and his quick-witted resourcefulness that facilitates his ability not only to adapt to the strange and varied circumstances in which he finds himself'Jama flits through various roles as a waiter and delivery boy, a charge of the Italian troops, a shopowner and entrepreneur, and a travelling bard of sorts'but also to seek them out. Jama's restlessness, which blossoms rather than dwindles after his failed effort to find his father, at times threatens to consume him, throwing him as it does into a series of increasingly dire and desultory situations through which he struggles with a combination of relentlessness and irreverence.

What's perhaps most fascinating about Black Mamba Boy is the way in which 1930s Africa is rendered through Jama's unsophisticated, uneducated perspective. Jama, despite having an impressive facility with languages and an odd ability to ingratiate himself amongst unlikely allies, has only a faltering and fragmented understanding of the war-time context, and Mohamed movingly contrasts Jama's curious combination of innocence and worldliness against what is an immensely challenging milieu. At one point, for example, Illiterate Jama is employed to recreate messages to be seen by passing Italian aircraft; his childishness is further highlighted when as a young man stationed in Wales he first sets eyes upon a fairground, where he spends his life's savings on fleeting amusements.

Unfortunately, what drags the book down is not that there are illuminating moments such as there, but indeed that there are so very many of them. Mohamed in her retelling has erred rather more on the side of biography than she has fictional narrative, and the novel feels simultaneously disappointedly bloated and somewhat unfocused. Jama's travels serve the purpose of teasing out the notions of placelessness and displacement that are so central to the time period, but at the same time they are a barrier in that they stop the plot from ever really feeling grounded. Rather than being able to develop a clear sense of a given city or even country, the reader is hustled along at a frenetic pace, and is never given much of a chance to themselves determine how the different places, societies, and cultures touched upon relate to each other, and on what level. This is disappointing, as Mohamed shows at several points that she is clearly able to tease out these details, so it's a shame when this opportunity is lost to the author's perceived responsibility to accurately retell her father's story.

Another issue is the authorial voice, which is at times uneven, flitting between soft and empathic and cold and distant, and occasionally forcing itself into the narrative to offer a retrospective on Jamas actions. I think my difficulty in identifying with Jama stemmed from the distance resulting from this particular narrative device, as well as from a beginning that flounders for some fifty pages or so before finding its feet. I was also distracted by the authors seemingly universal decision to eschew semi-colons and to force the lesser comma to take their placethis may have been intended to add an unfamiliar, foreign lilt to the narrative voice, but unfortunately resulted in some choppy and stilted prose.

Overall, though, Black Mamba Boy is generally strong first outing from an author who no doubt will be on the book-prize radar. Its an astonishing story, and perhaps even more so since it is tied so firmly, if at times mawkishly, to history. Readers might wish to note, however, the book is unflinching in its depiction of desperation, suffering, and displacement: the novel is both challenging and confronting, and I have to admit that I had to step aside for a few minutes after a particularly harrowing scene.

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With thanks to'Harpercollins Australia for the review copy.

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  1. Hmm. great review, it gave me a lot to think about. Im still hoping to read this book soon, and Im interested to see if I have the same issues with it that you did.

  2. Stephanie /

    Thanks for stopping by, Amy. :) There are some very good moments in this, but overall it just felt a little uneven and unbalanced. But there is one incredibly brutal scene with the Italian fascists that I still cant get out of my head. Its written about so dispassionately and matter of factly I literally had to walk away for a few minutes.

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