It’s strange – isn’t it – how I can take all the bits of the story and fit them one way, or another. I can make Martin appear and disappear. I can make him a mercenary in need of a holiday or a rapist or a man with a broken car. I can conjure a woman in a yellow shirt and the pale-skinned man who loved her.
I remember what Strebel said about narrative. But what he didn’t make clear was how malleable the narrative might be, how slippery the stories.
Shame begins with Pilgrim and her human rights lawyer husband, Tom, living in Geneva and spending weekends in Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin. On one of these weekends they meet Elise, the woman Tom will leave her for.
The novel quickly cuts to Magulu in Tanzania the following April. Pilgrim has added herself to a safari trip with Bob and Melinda, two Americans in their sixties. Melinda has been vomiting for two hours so the whole party is on their way to the local clinic. There’s nothing in Magulu but Pilgrim decides to stay. She can’t return to Arnau in Switzerland because there she is known as ‘Kindermörderin’: child killer.
In the first half of the novel, two stories begin to unravel: one is the story of how Pilgrim came to be called Kindermörderin and how the police investigation was carried out; the other is her time in East Africa, where she meets a cast of characters and is introduced to many of the local beliefs.
In Magulu, she meets Doctor Dorothea, a ‘small, odd woman’ with a range of outfits and wigs, who runs the local clinic.
I cannot treat people so of course they do not come to me and they continue to go to their mgangaand so nothing changes. We are still living in a primitive time and they believe if they take tea from this root or that tree bark it will cure venereal disease, will cure glaucoma, will make it possible to have a baby even though the woman’s uterus is full of infections. Her ovaries are scarred. No eggs can come out.
There’s also PC James Kessy, struggling to deal with the corruption in the local police force and Martin Martins, an East European, stuck in Magulu whilst he tries to get the fuel pump on his Land Cruiser fixed.
Not long after Pilgrim arrives in Magulu, a box is left. Some children find it in the roundabout and give it to Kessy who takes it to Doctor Dorothea. Dorothea opens it in front of Pilgrim. Inside are a kidney, a forearm, a hand, a heart, a liver and two ears, all belonging to an albino person. Kessy and Dorothea tell Pilgrim that this is a curse on someone; Pilgrim takes the box when neither of the others will. Dorothea tells her, ‘The uchawi will direct you’. Soon the two stories come together with horrific consequences.
What happens at that point is an abrupt change of point-of-view. In terms of maintaining the tension of the narrative it is needed but it’s also jarring. Initially we follow the narrative of Detective Chief Inspector Paul Strebel, the man assigned to Pilgrim’s case in Switzerland and then, towards the end of the novel, the point-of-view switches a number of times showing the thoughts and stories of the characters Pilgrim has met.
What’s interesting about this is we see the way characters construct their narratives and how they are similar or different to Pilgrim’s version of them and the events that have taken place. However, it’s quite a risk for a writer as this type of shift can be alienating for a reader who thinks they’re reading one type of story and then discover it’s something quite different. Finn does this because, whilst shame appears to be about different types of shame, it is really about the nature of stories and how slippery they are. It’s about constructing a narrative to suit your purpose. Finn does this and she has her characters do it too. The extent to which you’ve been played as a reader only becomes clear in the final pages. I found myself going over them several times to try and work out what had happened and how we’d ended up where we were; it’s the sort of ending you’ll love or hate for probably the same reasons – you have to unravel it.
Thanks to W&N for the review copy.