TagBlack Mamba Boy

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 40-31

Welcome to the second part of my countdown of 50 bookish memories from the 2010s. The first part went up last week, with the rest to follow each Sunday.

Compiling this list has made me realise just how idiosyncratic a personal reading history is. I read quite a lot of debuts, especially at the start of the decade, and didn’t begin reading works in translation seriously until about 2014. Both of those factors have helped shape my list. When I looked through some other ‘best of the decade’ lists, I was surprised at how few matches I saw with mine. But perhaps that’s how it was always going to be. Anyway, on to the next set of books…

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The month in reading: January 2010

January 2010 didn’t bring any absolute knockout books my way, but there were some fine reads nevertheless. My favourite book of the month was Robert Jackson Bennett‘s Depression-era fantasy Mr Shivers, which has substantially more subtextual depth than many a quest fantasy I’ve seen over the years.

Silver- and bronze-medal positions for the month go to two very different books. Simon Lelic‘s Rupture is a fine debut novel, centred on a school shooting perpetrated by an apparently placid teacher; and Up the Creek Without a Mullet (reviewed in February, but read in January) is an entertaining account of Simon Varwell‘s travels in search of places with ‘mullet’ in their name.

Bubbling under, but well worth checking out, are Nadifa Mohamed‘s wartime East African odyssey, Black Mamba Boy; and Galileo’s Dream, a historical biography spliced with science fiction (or perhaps vice versa) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not a bad start to the year by any means; but, still, I’m hoping for even greater riches in the months ahead.

Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy (2010)

Black Mamba Boy is based on the story of Nadifa Mohamed’s father, Jama, whom we first meet as a street child in Aden in 1935. When he falls out irrevocably with his friends, then loses his mother, Jama resolves to set out and find Guure, his own long-missing father, last heard of heading for Sudan – which is not nearly as far as Jama will travel over the course of the following twelve years.

Though it tells Jama’s story, this isn’t a straightforwardly biographical novel; from interviews, I gather that Mohamed embellished some parts, and that others were perhaps embellished already. Throughout, one is reminded that we make stories out of our lives: Mohamed’s introduction/prologue, where she describes the inspiration for her book, is novelistic in tone and style; the departure of Jama’s father becomes a tale to tell, as does the origin of his mother’s nickname for her son (a mamba slithered over her while she was pregnant with him, but left both unharmed – hence the nickname Goode, or ‘black mamba’); people displaced by the Second World War tell stories that transform their homelands into a distant paradise, whatever the reality was that they left behind.

Mohamed’s narrative itself has the feeling of being told rather than written, with its long, discursive paragraphs; and its structure, swooping in on certain events, then back out again to continue Jama’s journey. What’s striking is that, whatever happens to Jama, one never doubts his story within the pages of the novel. Mohamed’s voice has the ring of truth – the truth of the storyteller.

There are, however, moments when Black Mamba Boy stumbles; they tend to be when Mohamed is acting as the 21st-century person looking back on history, rather than as the novelist inhabiting the period. Compare, for example, her statement that ‘at his tender age [Jama]…could [not] imagine the kind of mechanised, faceless slaughter the Italians would bring to Africa’ (157) with the passage describing a battle a few pages later (165-8), which really evokes the sense of Jama’s (and others’) being caught up in events larger than any one person could ever hope to comprehend. There’s no question, to my mind, which is the better technique.

(Another issue with the novel is the odd typo, in particular Mohamed’s tendency to use a comma in place of a semi-colon; this happens often enough to be distracting, which is especially a problem when the flow of the story is so important.)

The wider historical context of Black Mamba Boy is one about which I know rather little, so I’m reluctant to judge how Mohamed represents history. But I will say that I have an abiding impression of Jama and others – individuals, peoples, nations – enduring circumstances almost too harrowing for words, and doing what they can to survive. Some make it through; others don’t. Jama survives, of course, and one might say that the trait of his that most shines through in the novel is his tenacity, his striving to grasp the opportunities that come along, however steep the obstacles. What a story he had to tell; what a story Nadifa Mohamed has told.

Further links
Video interview with Nadifa Mohamed
Article by Mohamed on writing Black Mamba Boy

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