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.