I love Ethiopian food. One of our favourite restaurants is Ethiopian, and I could happily eat a large Doro Wat (a wat is an Ethiopian curry, and Doro Wat is a thick paprika based curry with chicken) and piles of injara bread (a cold flat bread, full of bubbles with the consistency of a pancake and the taste of sourdough) more than once a week. It is one of the few "eat out" meals I have learnt to cook at home. It appeals to me that when I am asked what am I eating for lunch I can reply with "Wat", thus causing mass confusion. So reading a book that mentions the wats and injara at every meal had me salivating at every page.
But it was more than this that kept me reading. This book is large but incredibly readable. It fills you with history of a region that I would have at a guess that most of us know little about. It deals with the issues of colonialism, of occupation, of liberation, of dictatorship and of guerrilla and military coups but in an incredibly accessible way. And without preaching. That I feel is a real talent.
The story is told based for most of the book in a missionary hospital in Addis Ababa, staffed by English and Indian nuns and Indian doctors and follows the story of two twin boys born in the hospital. The characters are all well developed, understandable, essentially likeable. The setting is strangely familiar with the images of eucalypts and acadias. The story telling is fantastic as well, as you never feel like you are bogged down, which again is an art with the length of the book.
The issues of being in a missionary hospital in the Ethiopian capital from the 1950s-1980s is that there is a lot of horrible illnesses and surgeries described. If you have a weak stomach, then this may not be the book for you. But it was appreciated that the author didn't shy away from these issues. Of course in a country that experiences coups, nasty gunshot and fighting wounds would appear. In a country where it is common for female circumcision or more realistically, female genital mutilation, that is dealt with along with the horrors.
When I was about 18 years old, my mother got involved with a hospital in Ethiopia set up by Australians that specialised in helping women with fistulas. So I had heard terrible stories of girls who had developed this horrific condition in Ethiopia and surrounding areas and how people were working so hard to fix this problem that no one wanted to even discuss, let alone have these women near them. When the first fistula patient appeared in the book, I knew exactly what was going on and hoped that this was explored more, for at least people who had never heard of the condition before. I was very glad that the author did not dumb down the issue. I was also glad to see in the acknowledgement at the end of the book (which I skimmed through, and this is big for me) that he lists the Hamlins as inspiration.
This all being said, the climax of the book was a bit of a let down for me. I couldn't feel sympathy for the situation that set it into motion. All I wanted to do was slap Marion. It made the rest of the book frustrating. I would love to engage in a longer rant about this but I am incredibly mindful of spoilers. I wonder if it is just me. Also, the man needs to work on his sex scenes. They just felt a little rapey. I felt slightly off reading them. But I acknowledge that they are apparently ridiculously hard to write well or make them sound believable. Hence the need for the Bad Sex Award.
So with the not so good sex, and the unsympathic climax catalyst, this took me down to 4 stars.
Next: I am conflicted. I didn't have this on my list but I am thinking Anna Karenina as a classics Goodreads group I just joined is reading this as well. And if I am going to read this monolith (and I do want to) I might as well do it with company. I think it is time for a classic.... Then maybe a Diana Wynne-Jones... But it means I have to shuffle my list again.