OR: Malaria

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #26:-

MALARIA
Susan Hillmore
Jonathan Cape, £10

Zoologist and TV personality Sir Alexander Haye comes to the former island paradise of Mannar, now ruled by a corrupt government and torn apart by warring factions. He acquires an elephant for London Zoo, a gift from the island’s PR conscious President, but off-loads onto twin brother Max, an island resident, the task of transporting it from Mannar’s hinterland to the airport. Max reluctantly agrees, but contracts malaria while completing the job and returns home to die. Meanwhile the disintegration of the island’s infrastructure continues and Alexander comes back to find not only his brother dead, but Mannar on the brink of collapse and the elephant herd killed by poachers.

This is a short novel, but it lands a solid punch. Max’s illness, which leads to fever, hallucination and ultimately suicide, stands as a metaphor for the spiritual malaise that plunges Mannar’s people into self-destruction, while Alexander represents Western indifference, the eye forever turned to the main chance and away from any unpleasantness. The writing is vivid and assured, deftly interweaving images of great beauty and fecundity with those of death and decay, giving it all a kind of telephoto news immediacy, so that you feel as if you are right there alongside the characters as they confront scenes of carnage then scramble to safety while the house of cards tumbles down all around them. Pictures stay in the mind once the book is finished, snapshots of the bodies of slaughtered elephants and children butchered at an orphanage. Hillmore has no answer to the book’s essential question of how we can rescue others when we seem incapable of saving ourselves, but she identifies the problem with authority.

 

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