Rules of the Wild: A Novel of Africa (Vintage Contemporaries)
Francesca Marciano's heroine in her debut novel 'The Rules of the Wild' is Esme, a strikingly beautiful individual, full of unfulfilled yearnings and longings. Esme's early years are spent in New York with her mother, her brother,Teo, and her father, Ferdinando, a charismatic Italian poet. After her mother's tragic death when Esme is eight, the family move to Italy where Esme grows up "under the shade of the thick-walled family houses, behind crumbling facades...walking through dark alleys that open between buildings built by Michelangelo." When Esme reaches adulthood, she experiences another loss when Ferdinando dies and realizing that she has lived all her life shielded by her father's personality, Esme feels the need to go somewhere where she is challenged and where she can learn to face her fears. And so, she finds herself agreeing to go on a safari to Kenya with a boyfriend for whom she cares very little, and when it is time for them to return to Italy, Esme, deeply affected by Africa's beauty, decides she wants to stay on.
Shortly after her Italian boyfriend leaves, Esme meets Adam, born and bred in Kenya, who makes a living from taking Americans on safari and, mutually attracted to each other, they soon become lovers. Esme tells herself she is fortunate in meeting Adam; he is good-looking, loving, dependable and reliable - but, having lost people she cares about before, and having learnt never to count on anyone who says they love her, she keeps torturing herself that their relationship won't last. However, when finally Esme comes to accept that she can feel secure in Adam's love, she meets and becomes passionately attracted to Hunter Reed, an intense, driven, cynical and incredibly attractive journalist reporting on the carnage of war in Somalia and Rwanda, and who forces Esme to see the real Africa - both the beauty and the ugliness. Dividing her time between being with Adam on safari in the African bush, and in Nairobi, with the expatriate friends she has made since coming to Africa, Esme struggles to cope with her intense feelings for Hunter, telling herself that it's Adam she really loves and that Hunter will only hurt her. (No spoilers, we learn all about Esme's past very early on in the story and, as this story moves backwards and forwards in time, we know about Esme's relationship with both Adam and Hunter from the very first pages of the book).
Sensuous and intense, with some beautiful descriptions of Africa's spectacular landscape, Francesca Marciano deftly intersperses her depiction of the raw beauty of the African bush with the hedonistic lifestyle of a group of expatriates in, and around Nairobi, who party, drink themselves into oblivion and regularly take cocaine. And it is here that I should say that it is difficult to feel in sympathy with some of the characters in this story, as many of them are self-obsessed, self-interested individuals who are mostly involved in enjoying themselves and mainly interested in what they can get out of Africa - in fact, Esme refers to herself as a weak, selfish and self-obsessed creature who has adjusted the immense African tragedy to her own petty needs. That said, Esme does become more self-aware as the story progresses and, although I found myself losing sympathy with her over her behaviour at times, I found myself caught up in her dilemma and hoping for a happy or, at least, an optimistic ending for her - but do we get one? I obviously have to leave that for prospective readers to discover.