Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Wife of the Gods
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Critics have heaped praise on Kwei Quartey's Wife of the Gods. The book deserves it.
Set in Ghana, it follows Chief Inspector Darko Dawson as he solves two murders. One is a contemporary murder, the murder of a young female pre-med student distributing HIV information in the Volta Region of Ghana.
The other murder is the murder of Darko's mother who has been missing since Darko was a child.
To solve the crime, Darko faces a host of evils--witchcraft and superstition, as well as female slavery in the form of a belief that very young women can be made to become wives of the gods, sexual and other kinds of slaves to local African priests.
The women's families give them as offerings to avoid curses. They are young women on the edge of puberty. They become the priest's slaves for life.
The priests inspire fear, even in corrupt local police who skirt around the edges of their power. Local authorities don't fully believe in the priests, but they never challenge them either.
Police corruption is a major theme in this story. Police beat confessions out of innocent people while society looks on.
Darko himself is an imperfect hero, psychologically addicted to marijuana, sometimes unable to control his temper, acting on impulse and thus making serious mistakes. But he is two things most of the other authorities are not. He is honest, and he is willing to endure emotional anguish to try to do what is right.
This books deals with the pain of trying to do what is right. At one point Darko has this conversation with a mentor--
"You feel bad about [what happened]?"
"I can't even tell you how terrible I feel."
"Darko, even though I don't think you're to blame, if you had come here defensively telling me it wasn't your fault . . . , I would have been disappointed because it wouldn't be the Darko Dawson I know. It would say to me that you had lost a piece of your humanity. You see what I mean?"
Darko's mentor goes on to tell the story of the time the mentor arrested a young boy for a petty crime. Jailers beat the boy mercilessly.
"Do you know I've never forgiven myself for that?" Darko's mentor says. "I probably never will, but I'm glad of that, because if a day ever comes that I'm able to think back on that incident without any pain or guilt, then I might as well curl up in a hole and die."
To me, those words are deep and true. They apply to all people who honestly try to help. They apply to the physician who sits alone crying after he or she has lost a patient, as well as to the recovering alcoholic who watches a friend go back to his or her addiction even after all the meetings and the phone calls.
Despite the admonition all helpers hear--"First, do no harm"--, sometimes even competent helpers do harm.
Helping (or being unable to help) is often painful. One of the prices you pay to help is to endure pain. The pain is life-long, never forgotten. It is the price of being someone like Darko.
And yet, in the end, the crimes Darko solves go back to elemental things. They are woven into witchcraft and superstition, but they are, at their heart, the kinds of crimes that could occur in modern societies too.
Finally, we who are civilized deceive ourselves. Our civilization still cloaks primitive evil. Some basic human emotions lead to pain, abuse and murder. And the only thing we can do is fight against them.
So this book is powerful and deep. Darko faces, not just human evil, but also the uncaring actions of the universe. Darko's only child, a little boy, has a hole in his heart. Darko and his wife Christine don't have the money to have the hole repaired.
For me, Darko comes to be an archetype for all who try to help.
In some ways, the book seems slow and meandering like the society it describes, but underneath there is real depth and terror.
Kwei Quartey's Wife of the Gods is well worth reading.