Borderlines Hardcover – 13 Aug 2015
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‘Few other writers could make a border dispute in the Hague have readers sitting on the edges of their chairs. And no other writer I know of is capable of making Africa seem just as accessibly screwed up as our own messy political back yards. BORDERLINES is beautifully written and tautly told. It helps to explain why refugees from the Horn are queuing for boats in Libya, and portrays the searing disappointment of fighting a liberation war for years only to be betrayed by your own side. That disappointment isn't African; it's universal.’ Lionel Shriver, author of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
‘I read Borderlines in a single sitting. Paula Shackleton is an anti-heroine for our times: clever, spiky, complex and flawed. Michela Wrong has gained a reputation as a fluid, perceptive writer of non-fiction – now she has added a twist of imagination to create a gripping novel.’ Lindsey Hilsum
‘A gripping debut thriller … like all good thrillers, the opening of Michela Wrong’s Borderlines reads like a climax … an ambitious, multi-layered mystery … In Wrong’s expert hands, the worlds that the novel travels through – government backrooms, refugee camps, the privileged world of expats in “hardship postings” – are sketched with a natural, attractive intimacy.’ Guardian
‘Fascinating’ Laura James, TLS
'Gripping and complex' New Statesman
‘In its Graham Greene-like exploration of human failings, Borderlines discourses brilliantly on the politics of cartography … A first-class legal thriller, written with narrative verve and a reporter’s eye for detail’ Financial Times
'Beautifully judged & elegantly written … delivers on every level … thoroughly recommend' Spectator
About the Author
Michela Wrong is a distinguished international journalist, and has worked as a foreign correspondent covering events across the African continent for Reuters, the BBC and the Financial Times. She writes regularly for the New Statesman. Based on her experiences in Africa, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, her first book, won the PEN James Sterne Prize for non-fiction. I Didnt Do It for You focuses on the African nation of Eritrea and It’s Our Turn to Eat tells the story of John Githongo, a Kenyan whistle-blower. Borderlines is her first novel.
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Michela Wrong’s experience as an award-winning journalist explains why this deeply serious and intelligent novel often reads more like scripts for Radio 4’s “From our own correspondent” than creative writing. She combines her understanding of damaging colonial legacies, the corrupting effect of power on new regimes, however idealistic they may have been at the outset, and the cynical manipulation by self-interested Western states, to create a “North Darrar” with a very convincing sense of place, brought to life with vivid descriptions of landscapes in the Eritrea on which this novel is based. There are many insights and powerful moments, such as her sense of being trapped when prevented by a soldier from taking her customary evening run out into the plains, or the rendezvous at the “Tank Graveyard”, “a chilling indictment of superpower policy” where a local man explains the “geology” of the place, “like a quarry…our warmongering history caught in the sedimentary layers” of different weaponry from the days of the old Darrar Empire, the Italian conquest and British occupation to the latest civil war, with even some downed Soviet MiGs buried in there.
I agree that this often reads like a tense legal thriller, and even when it slackens off into scenes of office and expatriate social life it rings true. A slight problem for me is that all the characters – mostly Africans – have the same very articulate but somewhat stilted “voice” which seems to be that of the author contriving opportunities to give us information. I realise that Paula is intended to be a driven, prickly individual but her motives, for the action which got her arrested, for instance, seem insufficiently developed. The weakest part for me is her relationship with the impossibly wealthy and well-connected American Jake Wentworth. Recalled in disjointed flashbacks, the descriptions of their physical love often appear quite corny and clichéd, even hollow since it is unclear whether there really was anything more than sexual attraction. Is one meant to feel that Jake was a selfish man, a symbol of casual Western dominance, who “couldn’t” leave his wife, was attracted to clever, high-achieving women but unable to cope with their success, wanting a mistress in a cosy hideaway where he could rely on seeking comfort on his terms? The last chapter may focus too much on “tying up loose ends” in Paula’s life, although its sense of anticlimax may again be part of the book’s realism.
Overall, this is worth reading, and very timely in this period of widespread civil war outside the “developed world” and massive refugee problems. It is well-structured, but one is constantly reminded that it is a novel by an analytical, facts-driven non-fiction writer, lacking that elusive spark of creative imagination.
Paula Shackleton, the anti-heroine, is struggling with her own sense of loss and missed opportunities. Whilst she is integral to the plot,the buffer of her own grief insulates her from true emotional involvement so she is able to critically (and wittily) observe people and situations. As the story unfolds, both Paula and the reader become increasingly caught up in the events, which gallop to a climax at the international court in the Hague.
Whilst this is a work of fiction, it gives a real flavour of the challenges facing many of the war-torn countries of Africa, and makes clear why finding any sort of lasting peace is a Chimaera that seems to be always out of reach.