This is a big book about a big country and M.Oren has created a powerful story, a realistic sense of place and a host of memorable, larger-than-life characters to people it. Especially outstanding are his portraits of the loquaciously prophetic Poppa and the enigmatic Biggy.
The shortest distance between two lines mathematically is a straight line but the opposite is true in fiction. In The Dallas Mercenary, the two protagonists desperate to meet up are separated by a whole continent and aeons of culture. What greater contrast can there be than between the leafy suburbs of north London, the claustrophobic torture chambers and the squalid, stinking sewers of Mathay Valley on the outskirts of Nairobi? Can these locations be bridged within one narrative and still maintain the reader's credibility?
The resounding answer is, yes they can.
Michael Oren has taken a linear approach in his novel, describing realistically how Sally-Anne Symmonds, a naïve, idealistic English undergraduate training in rural Kenya, falls under the spell of a lively black boy called J'Alex. In fact, she trusts him so completely that she encourages him to memorise the contact details of her bank card before she returns to London. This is the inventive way that the novelist enables J'Alex, after two years of non-contact, to get back directly in touch with her to appeal for her help. It emphasises the sense of responsibility Sally-Anne feels for J'Alex and his honesty, since he has not attempted to in two years to steal money from her account.
She decides impulsively to leave for Kenya, which is in the midst of a post-election civil war. When the reader reaches Kenya with Sally-Anne, the heroine, it becomes obvious that the tribes are fighting more for survival than to promote any particular political ideology. It is the general confusion and lack of political demarcations amongst a population ravaged by hunger, homelessness and disease that makes such a powerful statement. Why should we expect people to have principles, if they have no bread? When one is as insignificant as a metal cog on the dirt streets of a ghetto, who can blame anyone for being attracted to the magnetism of power, which supplies one's needs and the means of solvent and narcotic escapism, whoever is wielding it? Even the most brutal of the novel's characters is a product of his age and environment; driven to inhuman extremes in a struggle for survival.
The book is exceptionally well written with clarity and pace, the constant switching of voice being a positive tool in keeping the reader in touch with the rapidly changing background of concurrent events, enabling the reader to straddle the parallel lines that keep Sally-Anne and J'Alex tantalisingly close but perpetually asunder.
The position remains insoluble, which justifies perfectly the open ended Epilogue and allows the possibility of an equally enthralling sequel.
This is a wonderful debut novel written by a young man with a unique talent. It left me breathless.