A Dancer in the Dust: A Novel, by Thomas H. Cook *****

a dancer in the dustA Dancer in the Dust is a multifaceted novel. It is a love story, the doomed love of Ray Campbell, a risk assessor from the United States for Martine Aubert, an African woman of Belgian descent. Martine lives in, and loves, the country of her birth, a fictitiously independent nation called Lubanda. And it is a story of paternalism, and of how much easier it is to place someone else in a risky position rather than oneself. It is also a story that raises thought-provoking social issues.
My thanks go to the publisher and the first reads program for the chance to read this free. It is beautifully written, but it is also one that starts with a man grieving, and by chance it arrived in the mail when I was grieving a younger family member who died very unexpectedly. Every time I picked the book up, the clouds formed, and so I took what I would generally consider to be an unconscionably long time reading it. For awhile, the words just couldn’t sink in.
When I got my wits about me, it occurred to me that I ought to find out whether Lubanda was a real place or not, lest I make an ass of myself while reviewing it. Sure enough, Lubanda, though not really an independent nation, exists in east-central Africa as a subsection of Tanzania. Cook makes it larger and more populous than it is in real life for the purpose of his fictional vehicle. And when you are as painterly and skillful with words as Cook is, you can pretty much do what you need to in order to tell your story.
So we rejoin Campbell as he sets out on his return trip to Lubanda. He left there after Martine was killed, returned to New York City, but the death of a man known to both Ray and Martine sets his wheels back in motion. Seso, whom Campbell considered a friend, has turned up dead, murdered, in New York City. Campbell has weighed risks and taken the safer course all of his life, and in turn, he has been left with nothing and no one. He is finally ready to toss all of his chips on the table in hopes of at least winning redemption, and so he sets out in search of Seso’s killer.
“Actually, we have plenty of opportunities to do the right thing…It’s taking back the wrong thing we can’t do.”
Martine had died because she would not do what the Western aid providers think she should do, a program the government bought into lock, stock and barrel. She had tried to explain in logical terms why their plan for her country was wrong, but no one was listening. Nation after nation had become a “funhouse mirror into hell” because of Western policies: Uganda, Kenya, Congo, and the list continues. Patrice Lumumba embraced modern ideas and methods, but ultimately died when he defied his keepers.
In setting out to find out what happened to Seso and why, Campbell is looking to trace back the thread. Cook’s account is brutal and searing, but it is too well told, too compelling, and raises too many thorny social issues that bear examining to be set aside. Read it for Africa; read it for the mystery it unravels; or read it for social justice. But get the book, and read it now!