Friday, October 31, 2014

Review of "Tendeleo's Story" by Ian McDonald

The first two books in Ian McDonald’s Chaga series, the eponymous novel (called Evolution’s Shore in the US) and Kirinya, both feature white main characters dealing with a strange alien invasion in black Africa.  While local characters do appear as secondary, it’s fair to say much of the concerns of the continent are filtered through Western eyes.  Partially righting the imbalance is “Tendeleo’s Story” (2000), a novella set in the colorful, culturally tense milieu.  Like another short work in the setting, “Recording Angel,” it more concisely expresses aspects of the series, but gains a significant degree of perspective from someone locally dealing with the creeping crystalline invasion. 

Tendeleo, whose name means ‘early-evening-shortly-after-dinner’ in reference to her birth time, is the teenage daughter of the pastor at an Episcopalian church in rural Kenya.  Village life comfortable, things are turned upside down, however, when a chaga meteorite lands a few kilometers from her home.  Visiting the impact site with her little sister and given a tour by a few of the UNECTA scientists gathering data, Tendeleo has a part of her brain activated by the work, advanced technology, and mysteries she witnesses there. But she never has a chance to act on the interest.  The chaga taking over her village a short time later, life is spun out of control as she and her family are placed in a squalorous refugee camp on the outskirts of Nairobi.  Taking life in her own hands, the sacrifices Tendeleo subsequently makes break the heart, but prove worth it in the end.

The perspective one from inside rather than out, “Tendeleo’s Story” does a better job than the two Chaga novels outlaying the stakes for those closest to the substance outbreak.  Local gangs, the Kenyan government, the UN, refugee camp life—these elements take on an added degree of tangibility when viewed through the eyes of a Kenyan teen living through the hostility and madness than does the experiences of Gaby and the others had in the novels to date. 

That being said, getting at the heart of what chaga is proves every bit as necessary for Tendeleo as it does for Western interests. The difference is in approach.  The West’s pursuit of knowledge characterized by anxiety-riddled taxonomy trying to understand the physics of the alien substance, Tendeleo’s is more in sync with her understanding of the land it takes over, and the people around her likewise trying to deal with what may or may not be an alien menace. Earning the novella its stripes, the inherent view feels more at home in the continent, particularly given the liminal point at which the story ends.

In the end, “Tendeleo’s Story” may be the strongest story in the Chaga series to date.  There are times the plot moves a touch too fast and covers thorny ground a bit too easily, but the aim can never be questioned.  Rough and increasingly gritty, it is the story of an African teen who must deal with the chaos of not only a doomsday scenario within her own culture, but also the intervention of the West, and the “doomsday” aftermath.  McDonald having struck upon a nice metaphor for the state of Africa around the turn of the 21 st century, the optimism inherent to the concept is welcome.  For as dark the turns of Tendeleo’s story may take, there is a something worth it at the end of the road.

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