Saturday 17 March 2018

Fiction: Shame by Melanie Finn

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €11.99

Shame by Melanie Finn
Shame by Melanie Finn

Anne Cunningham

Pilgrim Jones kills three children in a car accident. She survives with an uninjured body and a gutted soul. People pass her on the street, in the supermarket, and they whisper; Kindermörderin. Child murderer.

She must leave Switzerland and carry her shame to a place where nobody knows her. She has money, albeit her ex-husband’s. She goes on safari in Tanzania, then abandons the safari and rents a room in Magulu, a “town of sorts”, a “Splinterville”, a piteously impoverished dead end.  There is one doctor here, running a shack of a clinic with no medical supplies, and one policeman, running a town with no laws. 

Shame is an extremely disturbing book. It catapults the reader into chaos, the chaos of the accident and the inquest, the chaos in Pilgrim’s  head, the utter chaos of small-town Tanzania, off the tourist map. Here is rampant HIV infection with no available meds, indescribable poverty, unspeakable violence, witchcraft, curses, ghosts. There is seemingly no redemption for Pilgrim nor for this forgotten country.  But then life, even in tattered shreds, is never that simple.  This book, in hardback, made the Guardian’s 2015 “Not The Booker Prize” shortlist.

It is a stunning, brutal novel. Finn can map the trail of grief within the human heart as accurately as she can the dirt tracks of northern Tanzania, and she does not write as a foreigner. She was born and raised in Kenya.  Her first novel, Away from You was longlisted for the Orange and IMPAC prizes in 2004. I missed that one, but I’m going to find it.

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