A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa (Berkley, 2013) by Elaine Neil Orr

Katherine Turner Click to read more...

Katherine Turner is Associate Professor of English at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.  She has published articles on travel writing and a book, British Travel Writers in Europe 1750-1800: Authorship, Gender and National Identity.  She has recently edited Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey for Broadview Press and several volumes of Women’s Court and Society Memoirs for Pickering and Chatto.  An essay entitled “‘A scale of hideousness’: snakes and other reptiles in the new worlds of the long eighteenth century” is forthcoming in Travel, Discovery and Transformation ed. Gabriel Ricci (Transaction/Rutgers, forthcoming 2014).

A Different Sun gives imaginative life to characters who actually existed – the daughter of a Georgia plantation owner and the charismatic missionary whom she married, travelling with him to West Africa in the mid nineteenth-century.  Lurana Davis Bowen and Thomas Jefferson Bowen (renamed Emma and Henry in the novel) were the first Southern Baptist missionaries to venture into Africa.  Although Lurana’s journal is the main source for the narrative, the novel’s richly textured Africa owes much to Elaine Orr’s own upbringing in Nigeria.

Emma’s early embrace of Christianity is presented as a reaction against the injustices of the slaveowning South into which she’s born.  This world is briefly conjured – it’s difficult really to delineate plantation life without falling into cliché, and some things ring false, such as Emma’s inner denomination of an elderly slave as “the gentleman she called Uncle Eli” – before the novel has her married to the charismatic Henry Bowman, formerly a Texas Ranger with a somewhat sleazy past, now a passionate missionary to Africa.  Orr manages to make Christian commitment sexy and brave, carrying as it does the weight of a moral opposition to slavery.  She also evokes Emma’s quiet and steady devotion with conviction, especially through the short diary entries in which Emma gives thanks for small acts of grace.

The novel is focalized through Emma, and the reader becomes intimate with her sharp observations and ethical questioning, and with her bodily responses to her new world and to her changeable, difficult husband.  The initial sexual attraction is boldly done – “They left the parlor for another walk in the orchard – the minister without his frock coat – and when Emma saw the way his trousers fell across his backside, she knew what is meant by desire” (41) – and throughout the novel, for all the vicissitudes of their relationship, Henry exerts a powerful physical effect on Emma which is nicely rendered in Orr’s always striking metaphors –  “his voice a golden glow pouring through her” (32); “She felt a flower open in her chest and she laughed” (377).  The novel conjures well the unusual physical closeness which she and her husband experience by virtue of their missionary lifestyle.   In Africa, he has to deliver their children, she to nurse him during his bouts of malarial delirium.  Henry’s illness also throws Emma and their African servant, Jacob, into an erotic intimacy, which is less successfully realized. The occasional chapter narrated from Henry’s point-of-view, however, is compelling – especially later on, as the marriage comes under increasing pressure from his illness and her growing assertiveness.  At its heart, for all its commitment to large topics such as race and religion, A Different Sun is a portrait of a marriage – a husband and wife who grow to know each other in extraordinary but liberating circumstances.

The physical challenges and sensory stimuli of Africa are well evoked, although Emma’s bodily responses become a little predictable – “The interspersed beats [of the drummers] entered Emma, and she felt the vibration inside her” (199).  The way in which Emma adapts to Africa’s dirt and dangers as she builds a succession of domestic spaces is intrinsic to her development as a character, and it’s through her discriminating consciousness that the novel demonstrates the dismantling of national and racial barriers, and an uneasy reconciliation of Christian faith with older African beliefs.

The novel makes much of a couple of key objects – Emma’s portable writing box, at which she writes her diary; and a wooden letter-opener carved by Uncle Eli, the elderly slave whose West African roots make him a mysterious link between Georgia and the African itinerary which Emma and Henry pursue.  Near the end of the novel, Emma finds the pattern on the carving duplicated on a piece of Yoruban printed cloth and learns that it represents “completeness”.  She buries the carving as part of a cleansing ritual which apparently contributes to her husband’s recovery from illness.  The act seems to signify a reconciliation of Christian and African spiritual practices; also a kind of atonement for Emma’s implication in slavery.  Wisely, the narrator leaves such interpretations as suggestions only (this summary is necessarily reductive), and one of the novel’s strengths is its resistance to interpretation and its quiet subtlety (rather undermined by the cover blurb’s proclamation of “high adventure” and declaration that “Every day brings new tragedy and heartbreak”).

The writing box and Emma’s journal entries are presented with a sometimes overdone solemnity.  Of course, the historically real diary of Lurana Davis Bowen is the source for the whole novel, and hence a crucial and tangible force; but the novel’s thematization of the act of writing seems unnecessary (bearing the traces of its author’s academic background, perhaps), since its emotional focus is not really on Emma’s writing, but on her apprehension of Africa and her embrace of otherness.  A Different Sun‘s origins in the real-life experiences of the Bowens seems also to account for its plotlessness: it’s a finely rendered imagining of a distinctive world, but has a meandering feel and a downbeat ending.  The “Discussion Questions” at the end of the book close by asking, “If you were the author of the story, how would you write the sequel?”

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Discussion

One Response to A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa (Berkley, 2013) by Elaine Neil Orr

  1. This is one of the finest, most beautifully written novels I’ve read in a good while. I disagree completely with the statement that the book is plotless. Downbeat ending? This is a serious work of literary fiction, not a t.v. show in the manner of so many so-called “reality” series. As for the “thematization” (what a word!) of writing, Orr makes clear at the outset what writing means to the young Emma. Her use of Emma’s diary entries has nothing to do with Orr’s academic background. I hope this novel receives the careful attention it deserves in future reviews, especially the way its language moves and carries the reader closer and closer to the physical and emotional experience of its characters.

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