2009 Recommended books

The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

The Ghosts of Eden follows the lives of two children growing up in Uganda. Micheal is the child of missionaries and the book begins with him battling against claustrophobia on his first flight back to Uganda since he left to study medicine. He is finally distracted from his fear when the passenger in the seat next to him dies.

Zachye lives in rural Uganda where he helps his brother, Stanley, look after the family’s cattle. Zachye’s father dreams of a better life for his sons and arranges for them to be sent to school. The book touches on how the introduction of technology to the country changes their lives. Their observations of new objects were fascinating and I loved seeing them learn how to use things which we take for granted:

He could not think what was expected of him, so he took the green lump on the plate, put it to his lips and took a bite. It had the texture of the hardened fat of an animal. Dung Beetle snatched it back. ‘Are you so ignorant?’
Stanley started gagging, and spat again and again, although his dry mouth had little to spit. The food was worse than he could ever have imagined. He thought it little wonder that his ancestors had decided to take nothing but milk and blood.
‘Ha! He has eaten the soap,’ shouted a voice in the queue.  

The author, Andrew Sharp, is a medical doctor, and this shines through his writing. I love books written by doctors. Ever since I discovered Michael Crichton’s books as a teenager I have noticed that doctors seem to have an incredible gift for writing about human nature. Perhaps it is because they see so much more of it in the course of their work, or because they are more intelligent than the average person, either way the doctor’s magic is present throughout this book. It is packed with insightful observations about society and detailed medical knowledge.

The first half of the book concentrates on the lives of the two very different boys growing up in East Africa and is one of the best pieces of writing about life as a child I have seen. I was captivated by their innocent view of the world and loved their childish banter. The author perfectly captures the minds of the two boys – and to be able to do this convincingly with two completely different cultures is an outstanding achievement.

The Ghosts of Eden also reveals much about the superstitions and spirit world of the African people. Although I have read a few books which have contained this subject before (most notably Ben Okri’s Famished Road) This is the first book in which I have been made to understand their belief system and not just been confused by it.

Unfortunately, the book goes downhill a bit in the middle section. The lives of the boys as adults did not interest me anywhere near as much as that of their childhood. In fact, I didn’t like either of them very much when they meet for the first time and fall in love with the same woman. Luckily the plot held my attention and the ending was good enough to make up for the minor lapse of the middle section.

I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to read about African culture, without battling with symbolism or the endless horrors of war. It is a beautifully written story, and I think it has just become my favourite book with an African setting.


What is your favourite book set in Africa?

Have you noticed that doctors make great authors?

19 replies on “The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp”

I’ve got one in my TBR pile (and I intend to read on my trip) called “Say You’re One of Them” by Uwen Akpan. Look up the synopsis…you may be interested in this one as well. I supposed this is the beauty of books, as they take you to some amazing places like Africa. I’m not sure how many books I’ve read by doctors, but its probably more than I know. I know the author of “Beat the Reaper” was a doctor, and you’re right, it added a whole different layer of perspective. Wasn’t the author of “Cutting for Stone” a doctor also? I need to read that one.

My favourite book set in Africa is What is the What by Dave Eggers. It’s not about their superstitions and beliefs, though, but more about war and survival (without the symbolism). I’ve also read The Famished Road and that was surreal. I might try rereading it, as I did when I was really young and I feel I might get more from it now as an adult.

I haven’t heard of this book and author before, but will check him out sometime, thanks.

Re: doctors as authors, I’m not sure if I’ve read a book by a doctor, but I do know Canadian Vincent Lam is a doctor and he won the Giller Prize for his collection of short stories: Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures.

Sandy – I haven’t heard of ‘Cutting for Stone’ before, so don’t know if it was written by a doctor. I’ll wait for your review of ‘Say you’re one of them’ before I rush out to buy a copy, but the synopsis does sound interesting. Have fun on your holiday!

Claire – That is about the 5th time I’ve seen ‘What is the What’ mentioned this month!! I’m going to have to get a copy!

The Famished Road was great, but it was all a bit weird and hard to follow in places.

The Ghosts of Eden is great because it is so easy to follow, but intelligently written. Andrew Sharp is a new author, so you probably won’t have heard of him before. Hopefully everyone will know who he is soon, as his writing is so good. I really hope he picks up a book prize or two for this – he really deserves it!

It is probably uncool or something for a publisher to comment on a book review, not least because it will probably mortify the author. However, I cannot thank you enough for your write-up on Andrew’s THE GHOSTS OF EDEN. I am its publisher and think it is absolutely stunning. At the time it came in, I was sort of caving-in under submissions. As all will know, some do not cut it, others are lovely but not right for Picnic. Andrew’s, however, was in a league of its own. I was and remain baffled, saddened even, that such a beautiful work could end up on my desk rather than with an established house. It deserved better – but a bonkers publishing industry meant it was also Picnic’s to gain. Thank you again for supporting THE GHOSTS OF EDEN of which we are so proud.

very best wishes
Corinne and all at Picnic

Normally I don’t feel drawn to African fiction because as you say, so much of it focuses on the horrors of war. I realize this is huge part of the country’s past and its collective consciousness, but it so depressing! And sometimes I don’t want my fiction to utterly devastate me.

I do have The Famished Road here at home, and want to read it soon, but I will also keep an eye out for this one! It sounds great.

I don’t think I’ve actually read any African fiction (embarrassing, I know!), but I do have Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa in my stack as well, and while I can’t be sure, I think I will love it!

Corinne Souza – I don’t think it is uncool for a publisher to comment on a review. I am very flattered that you have chosen to comment, and Andrew Sharp is very lucky to have a publisher so active in admiration of the book. I really hope that Ghosts of Eden manages to get the recognition it deserves and hope that Picnic publishing does well on the back of it. Congratulations for putting such a great book in print!

Steph – You’re right. So many African books are filled with the horror of war. It is so refreshing to read a book, which although it acknowledges the violence exists, does not dwell on it. That is why this has become my favourite African book. That’s right – it is even better than anything written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie!! Her books are great, but so horrific. I hope you manage to get your hands on this book, as it is really good.

I love an African setting, but I’ve mostly read memoirs and I like the early 20th century in East Africa (Kenya).

I haven’t really noticed that doctors make good writers. From perspective, I’d say that they probably have good editors.

I have added this title to my wishlist as I highly suspect that I will enjoy it too.

I have a lot of African literature that is unread (including The Famished Road) that I am always planning on “getting around to” and I really must. Of the ones I have read my favourites are Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and the war-ridden Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This sounds really good. I have to admit I had never heard of it before reading your blog Jackie but I think that its a book that could be quite me… thats another book to add to the wishlist then lol!

My favorite book set in Africa so far is Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It’s also about two (twin) brothers who grew up in Ethiopia and went separate ways to pursue their life. One of them became a medical doctor (see the parallelism?) That is the reason why this book catches my attention.

Beth – I love all books set in other cultures. I have never really thought about which part of Arifca I like reading about best. I think it all intrigues me equally.

Claire – I’m sure you’ll love it!

Things Fall Apart is high in my TBR pile, and Half of a Yellow Sun was probably my favourite until I read this, but HOAYS was so harrowing, and a lot of the characters were irritating. This book is a much more enjoyable read.

Simon – It is good to see you back again! I think you’d really enjoy this book. I hope you find the time to give it a try.

Matthew – I’ll have to keep an eye out for Cutting for Stone – it does seem to be similar to this one. I had never heard of it before. Is it quite famous in the US?

This definitely sounds like one to read.

Your question has made me realise I’ve barely read any books set in Africa at all! I have Half of a Yellow Sun sitting on my bookshelf but haven’t got around to it yet. I tend to read more books set in Asia, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

And judging from these comments, I should finally get around to reading Things Fall Apart!

megan – I have to admit that I tend to favour books set in Asia too. I think this is down the fact that African books tend to be very depressing, and so I have to be in the right mood to read them. The Ghosts of Eden is a great introduction to Africa, as it is so much lighter in mood than all the others I’ve read.

I really need to read ‘Things Fall Apart’ too, although I think it is going to be another depressing one!

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