I just finished a book that I thought would be spectacular. "I Dreamed of Africa" by Kuki Gallman. Of course I would choose to read that, and of course I would imagine it to be spectacular. Parts of it were, too. Gallman has a strong opening with a lovely image of an African evening. Here is the opening paragraph:
"Often, at the hour of day when the savannah grass is streaked with silver, and pale gold rims the silhouettes of the hills, I drive with my dogs up to the Mukutan, to watch the sun setting behind the lake, and the evening shadows settle over the valleys and plains of the Laikipia plateau."
What a beautiful starting image.
Unfortunately, from there it kind of goes downhill.
It's readable, in terms of ease. It's not something from the nineteenth century. It's not "A Bird's Eye View of Paris" (the longest and unequivocally most boring chapter in "Notre Dame of Paris," otherwise an excellent book).
My problem with Gallman, in short, is that she's all tell and no show.
It's a shame, because her story is one that should be really moving: she speaks of the struggles and rewards of a life in Africa after being raised in Europe, many car crashes, a husband dead, a son dead. Her imagery is beautiful - her descriptions of the African landscape are absolutely wonderful. But there are few scenes.
Every time a new character is introduced, the reader is told what a wonderful, funny, intelligent, loyal, etc person they are, and also how "unusually" handsome or beautiful he or she is. Which, I'm sorry, but even if everyone you know really is that beautiful - to the average reader, it's just not believable that everyone in the story is drop-dead gorgeous, especially if it's a true story. Mario has "uncommonly good looks," Mirella is "more than just beautiful," so on and so forth. Also there are the personality traits. Maybe everyone Gallman knows really is a wonderful person, and I understand that she wants us to think that they're all wonderful, but she needs to let us discover this for ourselves. Here she is, telling me how wonderful Aidan is, when I'm thinking he's probably a douche because he's married and having an affair with her, because she hasn't made him sympathetic. She needs to show us her characters through their actions, words, interactions - not tell us about them in an introductory paragraph.
This is the main problem, because when an author does this it's hard to care about the characters. I know it sounds terrible to say, because these were real people, but I really couldn't bring myself to care when Gallman's husband and son died. I didn't have enough emotional investment in characters who should've easily leapt off the page - being real people - while other books that are entirely fictional have made me cry when someone is killed off. It doesn't help that there are photographs placed throughout the book - yes, I like the photographs, especially those of African animals, but it's hard not to see a death coming when you find a photograph labeled "Emanuele's funeral" before you've reached that point in the book.
Aside from the African setting, the only thing that kept me going through this book was the mystery of the ostrich egg. Gallman's second husband hung an ostrich egg from their bedroom ceiling and told her there was a message in it, for her to read whenever she chose, or to not read. All through the book, I wondered: What is in that egg??? All through the book, Gallman put off opening it. Finally, when her son died, she decided "it was now or never." And then what happened?
She buried the egg with her son instead of opening it.
It was so disappointing. The one mystery, the one truly exciting thing in the book, and now I will never know what was in the egg, because Gallman never knew. I realize this is how it really happened, but here's my deal: If she never opened the egg, then as a writer she should have chosen not to put it in the story. What significance did it really end up having? A writer makes a sort of deal with a reader, and when you pull surprise nonsensical endings out of your butt or add a major mystery that is never solved, you kind of break that deal and piss the reader off. I felt betrayed. She could've opened the egg, having once presented me with it, but she didn't. So why put it in the story? Just because it happened. But that's really not good enough, which is what a lot of people don't realize when writing creative non-fiction.
Overall, this book was a disappointment. It could've been heartbreaking; it wasn't. It could've been really moving; it wasn't. I sense a great book, a classic, shifting just below its surface, but in order to become that book I think it would have to go back in time and have some major revision done before getting published.
But I'll probably keep it anyway, since it cost a dollar and still has some nice descriptions of Africa.