This is my review of Borderlines by Michela Wrong.
In the effort to erase her shock and regret over an intense love affair which has ended in tragedy, Paula is persuaded by the charismatic Winston Peabody III to assist him in preparing the case to be heard at the Hague for the recently war-torn state of North Darrar in its boundary dispute with its larger, more influential neighbour Darrar. Is this work as ethical as it sounds, is North Darrar a cause worth defending, and how will Paula be affected by this assignment?
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.