There were moments when I found myself wishing for a revving of the narrative engine; when the novel felt loaded too heavily with information at the expense of plot. But in the scheme of this ambitious, meticulously researched work, perhaps a craving for more plot might be considered a failing on my part. The novel succeeds on the terms it has set for itself, which are not so much to do with making things happen as with a critical understanding of the usefulness of fiction for filling in history’s gaps.
The real question at the heart of Out of Darkness, Shining Light is: who gets to tell history? Gappah continues a tradition of writers such as Chinua Achebe in uncoupling themselves from the colonial past, to cease genuflecting at the altar of European primary sources. She has based her account on the diary of the real Jacob Wainwright – extracts of which were published after the completion of her novel – elegantly folding in her historical research and capturing the emotional truth of a protagonist who brings a welcome shift of perspective to a familiar story.
The novel is good, but maybe not good enough. This may seem strange, but for me at least it always reads like fiction. The romantic subplots seem contrived. Livingstone is saint and hypocrite, Jacob is earnest and deluded, Halima is outspoken and a gossip. Maybe only the villain is allowed sincerity.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light works on a powerful paradox. While seeking to redress the events and politics of the 19th century, it reveals just how supple its grand literary tradition is. The sprawling adventure novel of that time and of a hundred years prior, despite its age, somehow becomes more and more hospitable to modern innovation as time goes on. This fits Gappah’s approach and her creations, for whom the story’s trek becomes “no longer just the last journey of the Doctor, but our journey too. It was no longer just about the Doctor [...] but about all that we had endured.”
Out of Darkness, Shining Light is assiduously researched — it even comes with a bibliography, like a scholarly monograph — but, historical interest aside, this is not a very intellectual novel: the story is punctuated with insipid musings on wanderlust and how good things can emerge from bad situations. It’s perfectly serviceable, workaday schmaltz. But there is a bigger question here about developing-world narratives in contemporary Anglophone fiction: why must they be steeped in such trite sentimentalism? Would people not read them otherwise? Or would publishers not publish them otherwise?
The scope of Petina Gappah’s impressive novel is laid out in the prologue: the death of the Victorian explorer David Livingstone and the ferrying of his desiccated body by loyal servants to the East African coast, so it could be returned in glory to his native Britain. A passage in Herodotus sent Livingstone on a fruitless search for four mythical fountains which he believed were the source of the Nile. Out of Darkness, Shining Light restores the identities, personalities and passions of his unruly household, whose funerary quest is carried out with a courage and sense of honour that aligns them with classical heroes rather than servants. They even cry ‘The sea, the sea!’ on reaching their goal, the town of Bagamoyo.