Petina Gappah’s novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, begins oddly with the death of David Livingstone, the great explorer missionary. The novel, that reads like nonfiction, tells the story of his African companions, sixty-nine women, men, and children, traveling more than 1,000 miles over a course of nine months. This extraordinary commitment takes Livingstone’s body to the sea and back to England for burial.
The narrative begins with the voice of Halima, his cook, “This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land.” Halima recounts the beginnings as the group debates how to remove his heart for burial in Africa and dry his body to make travel with it less complicated. Her simple folk wisdom permeates her portrayal of the relationships and competitiveness among the group.
Jacob Wainwright, a self-righteous freed slave, picks up the narrative for the trip. Full of his own importance and free to excuse what the reader will see as flaws in his character, he remains committed to leading the group to get Dr. Livingstone’s maps, papers, and body back to England. Along the way, both narrators reveal Livingstone’s two obsessions, the search for the beginning of the Nile River and the abhorrence he feels for slavery. Each of them gives a conclusion for their own journey when the mission is accomplished.
Trading between the two voices, Petina’s writing shifts into each personality, yet remains lyrical. Based on much research to be found in the bibliography, the book reads like carefully woven nonfiction and leaves the reader feeling every mile of the journey and every emotional turn of events. It is not a light read but a good one.