Monday, June 19, 2006

Acts of Faith

Here's a book review I wrote nine months ago for the English library I belong to.

Acts of Faith, by Philip Caputo

While in the US last summer, I heard an interview with Philip Caputo on National Public Radio. The radio announcer asked the author to read aloud the first sentence of his new novel, Acts of Faith. I listened and was hooked. I had to read the book. The local public library didn’t have it on the shelf yet, so rather than fork out $26.95 myself, I emailed Tom and asked if he could order it for the library. He did.

Acts of Faith is set in Sudan and Kenya. I enjoy the descriptions of Karen, the suburb of Nairobi named for Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame, partly because I used to live there – "a kind of game reserve for Caucasians" is surely an exaggeration! Similarly, it is fun to read about the Tamarind, a restaurant where I’ve eaten. Lokichokio, in Northern Kenya, seems familiar too, though I’ve visited it before only in the pages of Le CarrĂ©’s The Constant Gardener (Le CarrĂ© spells it differently). But Sudan is new territory for me, and Caputo makes it real and heartbreaking, a place of violence and fear where few die a natural death. "I’ve gotten so used to people being shot and blown up," says one character who has just returned from a relative’s deathbed in the US, "that I almost forgot someone could go out that way – one breath, and then gone." Ironically, when one old Sudanese man tries to crawl away and die in peace according to his tribal custom, he’s "rescued" by an American who misjudges the situation.

As the title suggests, the story is full of acts of faith. Different people – pilots, aid workers, rebel troops, slaves, missionaries, Arab murahaleen, and a journalist – make choices guided by faith in Christ, or Allah, or humanitarianism, or love, or money, or adventure. At least one of these characters – Quinette Hardin – is truly unforgettable, and many are memorable.

Caputo looks at the motives of the expatriates for coming to Africa, and specifically to Sudan, a country deeply troubled even by Africa’s standards. Moral ambiguities abound. Should Americans redeem slaves or does their philanthropy just cause more captives to be taken? Is it right to fly supplies to rebel troops? What about if those supplies include weapons? Is it important to tell the truth, and if so, how does anyone determine what the truth is?

A blurb from Publisher’s Weekly on the jacket compares Acts of Faith to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and it’s a fairly apt comparison. Both books deal with unintended consequences, with ends that perhaps don’t, after all, justify the means, and with motives that may not be as pure as they originally seem. This is worth reading just for the hundreds of wonderful details – birdwatching, for example, and the Sudanese women carrying wheelbarrows on their heads, and the Christian romance novel Quinette is reading. Exciting and fast-paced, yet thoughtful too, and not shying away from complexity, Acts of Faith lives up to the promise of the first sentence I heard on the radio.

And here it is: "On a hot night in Lokichokio, as a generator thumps in the distance and katydids cling like thin winged leaves to the lightbulb overhead, he tells his visitor that there is no difference between God and the Devil in Africa."


Bridget said...

Wow, I'm hooked too. I'm going to the library for it tomorrow.

Ruth said...

Cool! I hope you enjoy it.