On the bookshelf
By Katie Croupton
FSG: 368 pages, $ 27
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A book review shibboleth: Never read the prior reviews of a book you have been assigned to write about. We don’t want to taint his purity of vision.
Or in fact one? As long as one has read the book and has a solid sense of one’s own thoughts, prior reviews can stiffen the spine. But sometimes we are just confused. “Female Embassy“, The new novel by Katie Crouch, is described by trade magazines as” a blowout “and” a blast “; one wonders, have these critics read the same book?
While Crouch’s novel is, yes, a keen-eyed comedic treatment of what the government calls “lagging spouses” – those who follow ambassadors to their knees – it is also a sad testimony to the corruption and misogyny. Crouch lived in Namibia and clearly saw how its citizens actually live. But rather than writing a story of pure suffering, she took the opportunity to pit the country’s problems against the so-called struggles of its most pampered residents, government officials and diplomats.
First of all, the comedic treatment. Persephone Wilder, a career bride at the Embassy, dresses all in white except when she is exercising (so she wears “pure black”). She raises her children like trained circus animals. She trains with Mila Shilongo, wife of the Namibian Minister of Transport and a “goddess” whose wardrobe includes “exactly the kind of high heels with red soles that Melania Trump favored when she visited toddler prisons” . As these women roam their territory, arrives Amanda Evans, who left a thriving career in Silicon Valley to support her husband, Mark.
The problem is, Amanda doesn’t know what Mark’s career is. He spent a year in Namibia after college and would be back on a Fulbright to study the early 20th century genocide in the country. Yet Mark does not appear to participate in many research-based activities; she concludes he’s with the CIA.
Anxious and idle, Amanda joins forces with Persephone to create a nonprofit rhino protection organization. All of the blogger mom’s tropes of fiction are in place: white wine-fueled bitch parties, sloppy school runs, competitive bake sales. But Crouch is no blogger mom. It’s funny to see these real housewives of international diplomacy trying to face a country they don’t understand. They are advised never to go to Katatura, where all their cooks and housekeepers live. It’s tempting to think that the cooks and housekeepers are behind the warnings, keeping their distance from intrusive strangers.
A first flashback takes us back to the year Mark Evans spent in Namibia during his university studies. While spending hours in a bar, he meets a beautiful young woman who sells gems. Upon learning that Esther has never been to the beach, he persuades her to take the bus there. Her friend Amber agrees to persuade Esther, as long as he joins her: “With a white man, no one will touch us. On the way back, the combi bus is run over by a car; Mark is quickly taken to a Western-style hospital, Esther forgotten in the middle of the road. Finally waking up after many surgeries, she is told that she must have died, advised to forget about it.
So readers know early on that Mark returned to Namibia in search of Esther – or at least her full name and fate. Perhaps we should be relieved that he loved her, but it’s eros and not agape that pulls Mark through the rest of the book – in a crazy gem smuggling plot that belongs to the “romp” side. from Crouch’s ledger.
As I read the flashback sections, I found it increasingly difficult to come back to Persephone’s plans and Amanda’s little concerns. Esther and her ilk aren’t just crammed into places like Katatura. The world of their Western counterparts is as close and yet utterly inaccessible as this simple day at the beach, trapped as they are in the cruel corner of a Venn diagram encompassing poverty, misogyny and sexual violence.
The only thing worse for Esther and Amber than being forced into jobs that pay far too little is losing those jobs and having nothing at all. And so, when Esther aims higher, she is trapped in the corruption that reigns over Namibia to its highest levels.
It is thought important, here, to note that Crouch – regardless of her time in Namibia, as the wife of a writer on a Fulbright – is a white woman who writes about Africa in the era. #OwnVoices. A sparkling Embassy Tale won’t be enough anymore, but if you don’t give readers something they’ll want to take, they can ignore everything else, too. Crouch not only makes this subtle concoction of sugar and drugs, but she skillfully mixes them up by involving Mark in a gems racket that stinks of exploitative colonialism, ancient and modern.
The denouement of “Embassy Wife” involves bush camping, rhinos, and one-upmanship, among other things, serving to explain not only what the characters did, but what happens when a country turns a blind eye to its people.
Come let off steam but stay for the study of human nature and human survival. When you’re in the wild, Crouch suggests, it’s hunting or being hunted – or finding a source of protection. Sometimes it’s from a character, sometimes from a spouse, sometimes from knowing when it’s time to run away. For a writer targeting a summer readership, that might mean coating a very bitter pill in sweet madness. In “Embassy Wife”, Crouch makes difficult lessons very easy to swallow.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.