“Whoever heard of a group of people marching from place to place with a dead body?” It is precisely such a journey that is at the centre of Petina Gappah’s latest novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light. Two decades in the making, the book tells the story of the sixty-nine men and women who decided to carry the body of Bwana Daudi – the Scottish physician and explorer David Livingstone – across the African continent after his death, so that his remains could be interred in his own country.
“In the grave we dug for him under the shade of a mvula tree, his heart, and all the essential parts of him, are at one with the soil of his travels. The grave of his bones proclaims that he was brought over land and sea by our faithful hands.”
The novel has two primary narrators: the expedition’s cook, the slave woman from Zanzibar called Halima, who is freed by Livingstone’s death, and the aspiring missionary from the Nassick school in India, also a former slave, Jacob Wainwright. Their voices complement each other perfectly in this richly textured chronicle of loyalty and betrayal, ambition and resilience, placing the emphasis on the lives of people neglected by history, the true protagonists of this particular tale.
Gappah’s approach is stunningly encapsulated in the retelling of the famous encounter between Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, one of numerous highlights of this sumptuously imagined historical novel. It has been a long time since I have delighted in a book so much. Out of Darkness, Shining Light is Gappah’s third novel since the publication of her exquisite debut collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, ten years ago. It takes you to the heart of the continent, illuminating it with the bright torch of African storytelling.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light
Faber & Faber, 2019
Review first published in the Cape Times on 25 October 2019.