Book review / Infertility rites
A Tribal Fever by David Sweetman, Deutsch, pounds 15.99
Saturday 10 August 1996
Martin and Alice are well-to-do Manchester teachers who have everything in their lives but children. Humiliating fertility treatments and the demands of making love to order have all but destroyed their feelings for each other. Their professional lives have also suffered: Alice has given up her job in a doomed attempt to boost their adoption credentials, while Martin lusts after his girl pupils. Everything, even new-style supermarket trolleys with their baby-compartments, seems designed to remind them of their plight.
Help is at hand in the dubious form of Les Enfants du Monde, a private adoption agency which holds out the prospect of a baby in Africa. Alice is keen to make the journey without delay and Martin's doubts are tempered by a romantic obsession with the continent that dates from childhood. They set off, but from the moment of touchdown at Mali airport where the guards are violent, the customs officers venal and a fellow-tourist fatally injured, the dream turns into the inevitable nightmare.
It is clear that neither Alice nor Martin has given any thought to Africa other than as a giant womb engendering babies and fantasies. Sweetman, on the other hand, builds up a potent picture of torpor and corruption -the luxury hotel beyond which foreign guests are not encouraged to stray, the educated Africanelite with their Western values, the European expatriates abusing the system...
The heart of the book is the journey to Timbuktu that Martin and Alice make in search of their promised child, a journey which provides a testing ground for the couple's certainties. Martin has to confront his sexual nature as he falls for their young male guide and Alice is made to question her need for a baby at the bedside of its dying mother.
Sweetman's descriptive writing is at its best in these passages and his handling of the narrative is masterly. Elsewhere, the story carries less resonance than it might, because the author seems determined to maintain the pace at the expense of either addressing the moral issues or developing his central characters (Alice, in particular, remains a one-dimensional obsessive). Most damaging is the flatness of the language which rarely rises to the demands of the theme.
As befits a distinguished biographer, Sweetman writes with historical precision. The novel is set in 1981, the year of the Windsor-Spencer wedding, a story that provides a constant counterpart to the central action. More poignantly, the unexplained diseases that are afflicting the babies in refugee camps have no need of explanation fifteen years later, when the reader is all too familiar with the ravages of Aids. Martin and Alice's successors may have made the easier journey to the orphanages of Eastern Europe, but the need remains for a code of ethics that is not just a branch of pragmatics.
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 2 Google April Fools': company unveils backwards search engine and huggable digital assistant
- 3 I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts
- 4 April Fools' Day 2015: The best hoax news stories from around the internet
- 5 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers
Katie Hopkins reported to the police for race hatred by Labour MP Simon Danczuk after tweet about Pakistani men