Flawed, but thought-provoking (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published in 2008 by Phoenix.
The paperback edition is 336 pages.
Based on a real-life project now established within some African countries, The Camel Bookmobile is the story of American librarian Fiona (Fi) Sweeney, who wanting to do some good, decides to spend some time volunteering in a ground-breaking new library project based in Kenya. Its new travelling library is intended to bring literature to far-flung communities, though Fi does not anticipate the hostile responses the project receives from the local people of Mididima. Amidst a clash of cultures and the feuding tribes-people who fear the loss of their traditional way of life, Fi comes to realise that the Africa of her imagination is perhaps not quite everything that she has expected.
This was a quietly told book on a powerful subject matter, if that is not too much of a contradiction in terms. It took a while to get going, but thoroughly engaged me from the start with its vivid descriptions of life in the Kenyan bush and some of the Mididima tribe, particularly teenage girl Kalinka who unlike her friends, loves books. Kenya is such a very different way of life from what I have ever experienced and the author herself is basing this book on her own experiences spent working with a similar project, so it feels very realistic and the elements of tribal traditions and cultures seem very substantial.
The novel explores the lives of the people within the tribal community and the reluctance of the village elders to support the camel bookmobile. They are firmly entrenched in their own way of life and feel the venture is sort of pointless. Even for the youngsters who want to learn to read: what happens when this actually becomes the case? Where can they go? Ultimately within their tribe, very few people ever leave and go to the ‘DistantCity’ for any sort of career. Those people who have left, like the teacher in the tribe, Matani, for example, are then perceived in a different way from the others if they return. Matani’s education and different ways of thinking hinder him somewhat when it comes to how he is seen-and treated- by others around him, including his wife.
This book did make me consider how difficult it must be when modern life encroaches on tradition and if ‘new’ ways of doing something are really of benefit to everyone. We are constantly subjected to the ethos that newer is better, more efficient and is the ‘right’ way of doing something. Modern society and ever-changing forms of technology now seem to be making their way to even the most far-flung and isolated of communities around the world, though from the community’s perspectives, this is not necessarily always welcome, or even a good thing. I tried to imagine how I would feel being placed in the Mididima tribe’s position myself; for hundreds of years they have lived their own nomadic ways of life and though indeed well-meaning, perhaps they do not want the trappings of Western culture to be given to them- even via something as simple as books. Though not a concept that we are used to, some people really can be perfectly happy with what they have and I think that this story demonstrated that concept beautifully, not to mention the warring opinions about this within the tribe itself.
There were some aspects about this story that I did find perhaps somewhat lacking, though I was able to get past them and focus more on the stories theme. The characters weren’t particularly well-developed for the most part and Fi’s naivety was certainly a bit wearing at times. For a woman approaching forty she did seem to be something of an idealist and didn’t seem to consider other people’s feelings in too much depth as she was so focused on her own altruism. She certainly had something of a one-track mind, though this of course was the point of the story. I also think that the ‘romantic’ aspect detracted from the rest of the storyline on a couple of occaisions and took it into soap-opera territory. If this part of the narrative had been a bit more fleshed out then perhaps this wouldn’t have been the case, but to me it seemed somewhat contrived and I didn’t believe in it. I think that the author tried to tie in too many story threads, when really, I just wanted to know about the library itself.
Other reviews of this novel I have read cite their problems with the ending. Personally I appreciated the ending, even though it didn’t seem to veer in the direction I had anticipated. It was also more in keeping with the rest of the story. Perhaps a few story threads were left unresolved as a result of this, but alas that is life.
Ultimately this was a really interesting read about what happens when tradition and the modern world collides and it explored superstitions and beliefs of people who live a very different way of life from that of the western world. I’d recommend it to readers looking for a somewhat ‘quiet’ read about cultures and traditions, or of course, people who have a particular fondness for libraries!