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
adeptif a little pointlesssequences. We glimpse Esmés
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.
Esmés old, decadent European background is purposefully
juxtaposed with the harsh newness of Africa. In fact, the authors
clear love of Africa, which is both compelling and eloquent, doesnt
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 Esmés 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 Europes
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.
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 womens
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? Thats 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." Its 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 Esmés
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 forthe last leg of the journey feels
a little muddled. This might simply be because a persons
life doesnt 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 itaccepts 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
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.