I have read some of Katherine Scholes’s previous novels and enjoyed them. Her latest, Congo Dawn, looked like a challenge at nearly six hundred pages, but I was engaged right from the start in the lives of Anna and Dan.
It starts in Melbourne with Anna leading a satisfactory life, working as a secretary, living with her mother and accepting of the breakup with the man she was engaged to. Then she hears that her father is ill. He still lives in the Congo, where she was born and spent her early years. She has few memories of him or her time there, but her mother has not wanted to have anything to do with him since they moved to Australia, and is not happy when Anna decides to agree to his request to come and see him. There she meets Eliza who takes her under her wing.
Congo in the 1960s has recently sought independence from the Belgians but is in turmoil as the local Congolese fight over power and control of the rich resources of the area. Dan is a mercenary, attached to the Congolese National Army, and is sent in to overcome the rebel Simbas.
Through the stories of Anna, Dan and Eliza we see the different perspectives of the conflict and those fighting it. It questioned war in general, showing the locals who didn’t know what they were fighting for, just wanting a job, and the very young wanting to be a part of it, but ending up as sacrificial lambs to the slaughter.
The two sides of the novel, Anna’s pursuit of the truth about her family, and the connection to the country of her birth, showing her development and growth as a person, and Dan reflecting on his past and his hopes for the future were both absorbing. and kept me going through the long book.
The description of the country and the state it was in was vivid, sometimes overdone, but gave a great sense of place and the time it was set. Attitudes towards the African people, apartheid and the benefits of colonisation were offensive, but reflected the reality back then, that unfortunately still exist, but hopefully not to the same extent. Scholes portrayed the local people and their traditions and beliefs in a sensitive manner, that gave me a greater awareness of that part of the world, then, and is no doubt still relevant in some respects.
The desire for family runs for through the book, as does the search for justice and peace, and the recognition that ‘violence breeds violence’. It showed how ‘dreams and reality could take different paths – how something that had started out looking clear and good became twisted’. The country with all of its complicated history is depicted with respect and compassion.