A finalist in 1994 for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award, Paradise hides major themes and ideas within the seemingly simple story of Yusuf, a twelve-year-old boy in rural East Africa whose father sells him to a trader to settle a debt. East Africa is in turmoil-on the verge of World War I and the fighting which eventually develops between the Germans in Tanzania and the British in Kenya. Cities are growing, populations are moving, merchants are trading and selling, and colonialists from many countries are trying to impose their own cultures.
When Yusuf is sold to his "uncle" Aziz, he leaves his remote rural village in what is now Tanzania and joins a trading caravan, traveling to the highlands and eventually on an ill-fated trading safari to the remote interior, discovering whole new worlds as he goes. In eight years of travel, he "progresses" from the countryside to a coastal city, from simple subsistence to the complexities of urban, mercantile life, and from his childish pleasure with a shiny coin to an adult's need for love.
Yusuf, as a young child/adolescent, is an obvious symbol of Tanzania itself at this stage of its history. Just as Yusuf must come of age, so also must the country as the various groups contending for influence must make choices about how much they will accept, reject, or adapt to outside influences. As Yusuf comes into contact with tribal chieftains, Muslim traders, Indian shopkeepers, and German empire builders, the reader observes all contending for influence, within Yusuf and within the loose, artificial borders of Tanzania.
Creating vivid images primarily through his selection of the perfect detail, Gurnah uses simple, poetic language to tell a story loaded with important social and political observations, conveying clearly and objectively the historical background of the country in which he was born. Dialogue is often filled with humor, and Yusuf becomes a real person, not a cardboard symbol. A novel which begins as a beautifully realized coming-of-age story, also becomes a story of adventure, social realism, and eventually love. Mary Whipple