Friday 17 January 2014
#CBR6 Book 2: "Svart Elfenben" (Black Ivory) by Arne Svingen
Rating: 3 stars
The book opens with a quote from Heart of Darkness, making the reader pretty aware that this is unlikely to be a cheerful story full of rainbows, bunnies and unicorns. Our unnamed narrator is a young Norwegian boy, not yet turned eighteen, on a rather impulsive journey to the Ivory Coast with his best friend, a former Liberian child soldier named Sam. Sam, who has lived in Norway for some years, has been told that his mother is still alive and the two boys are now trying to find her. It's revealed in brief, teasing flashbacks that they secured the money for the trip through rather shady and morally dubious means, and our narrator is on the whole, not entirely sure about how wise their course of action is.
Still, as a life-long foster care kid without any real parental figures of his own, he understands Sam's need to find his mother. He is fiercely loyal to his best friend, even if it means taking a very ill-advised journey into a foreign country ravaged by civil war. Within the first day there, they lose a large amount of money through the carelessness of our narrator, and things go from bad, to worse to really very dangerous and there is no way this is going to end well at all is there? rapidly. The narrator bought a copy of Heart of Darkness at the airport, and keeps reading and re-reading it throughout the ever more perilous journey. As well as discovering what a charmed life he has led in Norway, even without loving parents to raise him, our narrator also discovers that his best friend is a very different person in Africa than he was when they were hanging out on the streets of Oslo. Does he actually know Sam at all? Can you ever escape your past?
The book is a young adult book clearly written with boys in mind. It starts and continues at a breathtaking pace, constantly upping the danger and complications for our two young protagonists. Our narrator is never even named, and there is a very sparse gallery of supporting characters to keep track of, most of them described indirectly through words and actions. There are a lot of thorny issues dealt with in the book, not least how far is it reasonable to be expected to go in the name of friendship? Even for someone you love as a brother. It is a wild, fairly uncivilised and scary Africa depicted in the book, but a book set in a country ravaged by civil war, dealing with the issue of child soldiers would have been dreadful if it didn't show the ugly sides of such warfare. Even as the boys are dragged closer and closer to their seemingly inevitable doom, there are flashes of hope. Several of the characters are hopeful that the future of their countries will be improved, and the close friendship between the two is admirable, even as our narrator discovers that Sam might be a complete stranger to him.
This was one of the books I had to read for my Norwegian course this semester, and I doubt I would have picked it up if I hadn't had it assigned as part of my curriculum. It's good to see that even in immensely privileged Norway, there are authors who highlight the less pleasant issues in the world today, and try to make teenagers aware of it without preaching or getting sanctimonious. I have several pupils I suspect would like this book, and will recommend it to them.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.