As Nicholas Kristof works to keep South Sudan in the public’s eye, I coincidentally turned my attention to this novel, less because of the setting and more because I’d always heard good things about Caputo, and this one was the first I came across.
It is a multi-layered text. The only criticism I can offer is that it’s perhaps a bit too masculine. Even if that’s appropriate because that’s the world inhabited by those who do humanitarian aid work, the descriptions of the interactions between genders (including the sex scenes) are written from and informed by the male perspective.
Now back to the good stuff. The title gains more and more meaning as the admittedly long book (669). It is an act of faith to try to do what you perceive to be good the confused world Caputo presents. The characters struggle with trying to figure out what is right and to determine (at the same time) what is necessary. This only becomes more complicated when the question of profit is introduced, then the question of religion, and then love, and the question of individual situations vs. the greater good and the question of Africa, and so on.
Caputo’s insights, descriptions, and characterizations – together with his occasional majestic turn of the phrase (I underlined beautiful sentences on a regular basis) – and his ability to develop a range and balance of nuanced characters is just remarkable. It took me a while to warm to the book, but once Quinnette was introduced, things really took off. No one is fully good or fully bad. Everyone has motives.
I wondered a bit about the mystique ascribed to Africa. I kept waiting for a character to say, “Forget about it, Jake. It’s Africa.” But Caputo is not the first to make a place into a character; he’s not even the first to do that to Africa.
This book is epic, relevant, and provocative. We all have a certain kind of faith, no?