ISBN 0-0699-27469-8

As an American living abroad, an expatriate, I felt an immediate sympathy for Rules of the Wild, the debut novel by filmmaker Francesca Marciano now in paperback by Vintage. She captures the insular desperation of people who purposefully abandon their own contexts, and place themselves outside a familiar frame of reference. Yet they carry with them a nostalgia for their homes and a longing to belong. This is contrary behavior, and Marciano captures just how self-destructive and self-fulfilling expatriate life can be. This is magnified by her canvas, Africa, upon which she draws the story of a young women, Esmé, along with a few men.
        The story of Esmé in Africa ricochets from one end of the story to the other in adept–if a little pointless–sequences. We glimpse Esmé’s unconventional childhood and her somewhat obsessive love for her free-living poet father. After his death she slides into depression and is rescued by what becomes her true love for a while, Africa. Esmé’s old, decadent European background is purposefully juxtaposed with the harsh newness of Africa. In fact, the author’s clear love of Africa, which is both compelling and eloquent, doesn’t necessarily merge with the "boy meets girl meets boy" aspect of the story, though neither is it too dissonant. Ms. Marciano attempts to create a parallel, love of a person and love of a place, but Esmé’s feelings about Africa, although complicated, seem more durable than her relationships and at the same time less relevant to the actual direction of the story. The new, physical life of Africa is contrasted with Europe’s life of the mind when Esmé meets Adam, a handsome if rather bland son of the soil. But Esmé is still herself, something she gradually comes to realize after months alternately roughing it in the bush and sniffing coke with other slightly desperate Kenya expats. Then she meets the unfriendly Hunter, a journalist who has seen too much.
        Clichés there are, but in spite of these the book rings true, mostly because of the atmosphere Ms. Marciano recreates and her rather scathing character sketches. The expat community of Nairobi, like all expat groups, creates a world for itself that is as close to home as possible, but they also shore up the walls that divide them from their original homes. They devour back issues of women’s magazines and spend lavishly on French espresso cups to recreate European sophistication. Yet at the same time, status is defined by how rough you have lived and for how long. Women flaunt their shooting skills and men trade atrocity stories. "–So, do you live here? That’s always the opening line. Then there is how long have you lived here (seniority), what do you do for a living (authority), do you live along (sexual innuendo)." This is incisive observation. Esmé calls her set "the white baboon family." It’s the world of the clique, where everyone eventually sleeps with everyone else. Sexual tension sets the guidelines for interactions, and it is in depictions of this tense, small world where Ms. Marciano really takes flight.
        But there is another element in the book, the love story. Essentially, we follow Esmé’s trajectory, from her father to Adam, from Adam to Hunter, and from Hunter back to herself. Or at least that is what Ms. Marciano seems to be trying for–the last leg of the journey feels a little muddled. This might simply be because a person’s life doesn’t come to a tidily symbolic end, as novels often try to do. Esmé tries to free herself from her "Old World" thoughts and dreams, but finds escape is futile. When she realizes this, Esmé accepts it–accepts essentially the overwrought life of the mind and emotion, but too late. In the end she returns to Africa, and we are left with a sense that her fate has chosen Africa for her for some ambiguous but unavoidable reason.
        In Marciano’s own words, "my novel grew out of a desire to make sense of the relationship of the white people who live in Africa with this place where they will never belong.... It has struck me how brave you need to be to put all your love in one place, a place you will never be able to call home. I wanted to describe this feeling, which echoes the same determination and the same fear you feel when falling in love with someone." And she did it in English, not her native language, for which she deserves much laud. This sense of loving alienation is the real heart of her novel, and rings true to me as I write this in a country not my own. The rules in Rules of the Wild are our rules, human rules. They are the rules we impose upon our own relationships, the rules we use to keep us safe and to enable us to step out into danger.