Nile Baby, By Elleke Boehmer

Family fortunes across space and time
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The title of Elleke Boehmer's novel might lead the reader to expect that the protagonist will prove to be a contemporary Moses, leading his people out of bondage to an imperial power. After all, Boehmer published Mandela: A Very Short Introduction in July, so that theme must have been on her mind. The epigraphs, from a poem by David Constantine and from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, darken this expectation. If the "dead trail with the living still", perhaps the book will focus, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, on those who didn't escape slavery.

One of the many surprises in Nile Baby is its skilful manipulation of readerly expectations. The baby of the title is not hidden among the river's bulrushes, but a foetus preserved in formalin since the First World War. The two 12-year-old misfits who "liberate" it from their school's laboratory storeroom begin a three-way relationship which is grotesque, unstoppable and totally unpredictable.

Alice Brass Khan, who excels in science, recognises her own African cheekbones in the foetus as soon as she and Arnie Binns drag it from its jar. The incision she makes in its shrivelled belly seems almost like an act of self-harm, and horrifies Arnie, who is concerned with the welfare of the foetus's soul. For the first time, their friendship is disrupted and begins to affect their apparently dysfunctional families.

The foetus takes on a life of its own, paradoxically as it begins to decay. In his desperate search for a resting place for the ancient baby, Arnie travels to find his father in Leeds, and discovers instead his father's Igbo partner, who recognises the significance of scars on its shoulders.

They tell her that it was an ogbanje child, one that was constantly born to the same mother and repeatedly died in infancy. This incarnation, though it ended prematurely, reveals the interweaving of Europe and Africa, leading Alice to speculate about the skeleton of the African soldier, unearthed on a dig, who fought for the Roman army in Britain. Like the threads of the plot, the threads of this kind of interleaving can't be tied up tidily.

Boehmer's eye for domestic detail and ear for the nuances of speech whisk the reader in and out of different ways of being. Alice's mother's past is evoked in her "consistent claim that her two daughters sprang from the seed of that bloke on the wall", though Farouq Khan couldn't stand the weather in England and left. Nile Baby is neither knowing nor ironic, since the main perspective is the puzzled Arnie's – as he gradually realises that life is shaped in unforeseen ways by history.