In A Foreign Country by Hilary Shepherd

Cover of In A Foreign Country by Hilary ShepherdHaving previously reviewed other books published by Honno Press, I was offered a free review paperback copy of this book in the hope that I might review it. A glance at the opening pages on Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature assured me that here was a well-written book in an interesting setting – Ghana in 1976 – and I was keen to explore.

First Impressions

My first impression was to admire its beautiful cover, simple but evocative of the vast yet harsh beauty of Africa, and its intriguing strapline “How well do you know those you love?” drew me in. Once I’d started reading, I immediately liked the young heroine Anne, who plans to use a post-degree gap year to get to know her father. Now living in Africa, he’s barely seen her since she was a small child, when he was divorced from her mother.

The Britishness of Key Characters

From the start, you know this is going to be a complex tale in emotional terms. With so much unspoken between the key players, we expect misunderstandings and misinterpretations. The British characters are, well, very British, and it is fascinating to follow the changing nature of their relationships as the story unfolds.

But the book is about much more than a father-daughter relationship. It also addresses what it means to belong, in a much wider sense – not only to belong to a family, but also to a nation, to a religion, to friends and even to a continent. The subtly measured and restrained narrative evokes an affectionate but unsentimental portrait of Ghana and its people. It’s likely to overturn some of the European readers’ expectations (it did mine, anyway), just as it overturns Anne’s.

Period Setting

Having studied African nationalism at high school during the 1970s, I was particuarly interested that the author chose to set the book in that period, when imperial powers had long departed officially, but much of the structure of empire remained – the Mission school, European-led industry, etc. (I discovered later that the author had herself lived in Ghana in the 1970s, a trip that clearly made a huge and lasting impression on her.)

It would have been easy to turn this into a straightforward family saga or romance, but it’s more intelligent, subtle and sensitive than those labels suggest. I was conscious throughout of the author’s deft control and understatement. Less was definitely more, and what she chose to omit, as well as what she included, made it a much greater book.

Highly Recommended

In short, I found this a thought-provoking, absorbing and rewarding read, which I highly recommended. I will be on the look-out for more books by Hilary Shepherd.

Find out more about HIlary Shepherd via her publisher’s website: www.honno.co.uk

 

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