Baobab: A Novel
by Larry Hill
First Edition Design Publishing

"'So, in summary we have a dead General, SCUD missiles, two missing Peace Corps volunteers, a bunch of girls talking about a coup d’état, and an order to leave town. Other than that, it’s pretty quiet.'"

Novels about earnest diplomats pursuing their particular nation's interest in other countries are rife with interesting characters. Two examples that this book brings to mind are the seemingly naive Pyle in Graham Greene's The Quiet American and his cuckolded Pineda in The Comedians. Multiple characters traverse the pages of this chronicle, but two, in particular, draw the lion's share of interest: Political Officer Bernadette Kelly and Regional Medical Officer Michael Eisenstat. Both are committed to doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. However, they harbor no illusions that those abilities are often limited by the backwater conditions of the fictional West African nation in which they ply their trade and the decidedly low level of interest from the country that sent them there—the United States of America.

Kelly is a fetching female, when she takes the time to make it apparent, who enters into a sexual liaison with a high profile general of the Zinanian Army. As one might assume, this presents all sorts of potential problems, particularly when the general gets carried away at a dinner party and crosses verbal swords with a government official who is closely tied to Zinani's dictator and president for life. That's just the start of Kelly's problems, however, as she soon comes under the watchful eye of the authoritarian government for being a little too friendly with the head of an insurgent opposition group.

Eisenstat is a former Beverly Hills internist who has whisked his wife away from her comfortable existence in California to what might charitably be referred to as an African armpit. While he oversees the medical needs of the American contingent there, he's constantly in search of ways to improve even the most rudimentary conditions of what passes for a hospital. Soon he, like other members of the American Embassy, some Peace Corps volunteers, and even a contingent of U.S. Air Force personnel, find themselves in the middle of an armed insurrection and coup d' état.

Author Hill, writing throughout with keyboard and tongue firmly in cheek, employs wit, humor, and irony to entertain as he pulls readers deeper and deeper into escalating events. When two women from the Peace Corps are taken captive, he describes their situation like this: "Toilet facilities were not of Hilton standard. Shortly after the meal delivery, they were invited out of their room to a grotesque outhouse…. Even during the walk to the john, there was not a word exchanged between the guards and the guarded. Questions, complaints, insults, offers of oral sex, in French, English, and Fulani—all were ignored."

Hill also handles his character development with aplomb. In addition to the two protagonists mentioned earlier, depictions of supporting players and their peccadilloes quickly categorize their place in the fictional food chain. But whether it's taking a penny-pinching administrator to task or highlighting the unfortunate fact that a long-tenured diplomat has exceeded his use-by date, Hill opts for tolerance over tirade and empathy over invective.

Both the pace and plot of the novel build harmoniously. Anticipation rises exponentially as the tiny African nation becomes aflame with revolt. As is usually the case in international thrillers such as this, the last few chapters and pages are saved for a hair-raising sequence of suspense and action. To his credit, Hill displays an innate ability to keep readers engrossed in the furor without abandoning their collective funny bones.

The title of the novel is taken from the iconic tree that resides in arid sub-Saharan Africa. It is frequently referred to as the "upside down tree," since most of the year it is absent of leaves, and its bare branches atop the trunk resemble misplaced roots. It seems a fitting title, as the novel unveils a warm and humorous look at what can happen to people, even those with the best of intentions, when things go belly up.

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