The Voyage Home by Jane Rogers

Shipwrecked lives on a passage from Africa
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The Independent Culture

Jane Rogers has never shirked the big themes and is fascinated by psychology. The Voyage Home, her seventh novel, is a suitably knotty exploration of moral dilemma and its fallout, the long-term guilt and self-deception. Travelling by ship from Lagos to England after her father's funeral, 37-year-old Anne is approached by a Nigerian stowaway fleeing persecution and hoping for asylum. His heavily pregnant wife is ill in the hold. The man wants help but insists she tell no one else of their presence. Feeling totally inadequate to cope, Anne takes action with appalling consequences that will haunt her in the form of prolonged depression.

The course of the voyage is interspersed with extracts from the diary she is reading, her father David's journal of his years as a missionary in 1960s Nigeria, and his experience of the Biafran famine. As Anne lurches, both literally and figuratively, through the nightmare on the boat, the clay feet of the man she has always considered a paragon are exposed. David's story is a separate voyage of self-discovery but there are many parallels: how a person can carry great qualities alongside huge flaws; how frighteningly easy it is to blunder into disaster with the best of intentions. Both are morally tested and found wanting: David from idealistic arrogance, Anne from fear.

Always a good ventriloquist, Rogers manages to speak convincingly with two separate voices. The flaw is that the diary is too obviously the work of a skilled novelist using all the tricks (polished dialogue, pregnant rests, stressed sentences). It succeeds, however, in allowing Rogers to work into her characters using multiple perspectives. Thus we read in David's Nigerian diary of his giggling baby girl, pampered by the entire mission station, and are struck by the poignant contrast with the uptight and self-despising woman we see drifting uneasily through life.

Life is messy, ongoing, a skein of dangling threads, fathomless as the sea whose primal presence sounds throughout in some wonderfully lyrical passages: "There are blue seas, romantic seas, charming curled little waves frothing at the heels of dainty galleons; there are thunderous seas with great oil-black rollers lashing over ships in peril..."

Both David and Anne are forced to make impossible choices. David has learnt humility, and Anne takes the first tentative steps into autonomy. At the heart of this book, however, remains a dreadful injustice, still crying out for redress as it concludes.

Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Turn Again Home' (Virago)