LANGUAGE: The novel is written from the third person limited point of view, as a narrator who seems to be reliable conveys the story while including the thoughts and feelings of one character at a time. The narration is from Bella's perspective for the vast majority of the novel. This style of narration endears the reader to Bella as he/she can understand Bella’s motives and inner turmoil while also creating a strong negative feeling toward Valerie, whose animosity toward Bella is clear throughout the novel. Also, the reader sees the issues through her eyes for the majority of the time, there is an obvious bias toward the side of Bella within the custody battle. Changes of perspective to other characters are brief and do little but add to the reliability of the narration as a whole and offer updates on the thoughts of the others. However, with the detached narrator comes a loss of any colloquial language or trends in diction that often result from narration through the eyes of a character. Although the novel’s plot is rich in culture and heritage, the language fails to reflect either Bella’s departure from her African heritage to travel as a photographer or her return to African roots as she cares for Dahaba and Salif. It does not indicate the mix of cultures by occasionally using a word or phrase of a foreign language, with the exception of a small handful of lines of dialogue. Ultimately, Farah’s failure to use the language of the novel to highlight the mixture of cultures among the characters allows the reader to see the central themes and conflicts of the novel as common issues that transcend individual cultures. In this way, those themes and conflicts seem to be more universal than circumstantial as they are described in such plain English.
IDENTITIES: A central theme in the novel is a departure of the characters from their identities in a time of hardship as well as a struggle to return to former identities when they need to do so. Bella and Valerie are the best examples of both ideas. Bella’s work as a photographer allows her to live a whimsical life, traveling all over the world to practice photography and spend time with her many lovers. However, it seems that she never wholly dedicates herself to anyone but her brother, Aar. Therefore, when Aar is killed, Bella is willing to give up her own lifestyle in order to return to her African roots and raise the children of her half-brother. She struggles to adjust to life as the head of a household and as the guardian of two teenagers, but is willing to do so because her love for Aar transcends her own lifestyle. Also, Valerie changes her own identity and attempts to make a return to her previous identity when Aar is assassinated. She had previously abandoned her husband and children to leave with her lover and wholly removed her family from her own life. Her new life with Padmini, however, is interrupted by the death of Aar and she attempts to reenter the lives of Dahaba and Salif. However, she struggles to recapture the respect and love of the children who she once abandoned. Valerie’s struggle with identity is compounded by the fact that she is living as a homosexual in regions where there is great discrimination based on sexual orientation. She works to be accepted by not only her family but also society as a whole, hoping that the people around her can accept her true identity.
SETTING: Setting plays a crucial role in the novel, both literally and symbolically. In a literal sense, the political unrest within Africa is integral to the plot. It is this political uncertainty and chaos that originally leads to the politically motivated death of Aar, which serves as a catalyst for the plot itself. Furthermore, the setting creates conflicts regarding the sexual orientation of Valerie. She and her partner, Padmini, are not seen as equals in African society, which does not welcome homosexuals as equals. In fact, they are arrested in Uganda for homosexuality and Valerie’s struggle for acceptance is even more difficult as a homosexual. Also, the setting’s continuity in the latter portion of the book symbolizes the change in Bella’s lifestyle. Prior to the death of Aar, Bella traveled around the world for work as a photographer. However, when she moves to Nairobi to take care of Dahaba and Salif, she is forced to remain in one location. This transition parallels her change from having multiple lovers around the world to wholly devoting herself to the two children and the way in which she relinquishes her life in order to focus on her family.
THEMES: The most prevalent theme in the novel concerned the ties of family and what actions have the power to break or recreate them. This specifically relates to the relationship between Valerie and Dahaba and Salif. Valerie abandoned the kids, but after the death of their father suddenly reentered their lives. Because she had ignored them for so long, it took work to regain their trust and rebuild her relationships with them. It is ultimately apparent that almost anything can be forgiven for the sake of family, as Dahaba and Salif welcome Valerie back into their lives, but a relationship can never fully recovered, as the children have far more respect and love for Bella. The novel is also a commentary on the effects of political turmoil and oppression on the lives of individuals within Africa. The plot includes both a politically motivated murder and a homosexual woman facing oppression in society; a theme of the book relates to how the individuals are able to overcome these challenges and also lend an explicit example to paint the issues in a negative light.