Novels and non-fictive explorations about Western professionals challenged by shifting their work overseas have a long and (in tone) varied history. John Hersey’s Hiroshima is a dispassionate recording of a horrific event; Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost is a semi-hallucinatory novel about an archaeologist’s efforts at exhuming a victim of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war; and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is a hilarious account of a journalist’s misadventures which proves the Peter Principle. In these, and other, novels, the exotic locale acts as metaphysical challenge to the protagonist (the challenge in the first book above is specifically for the reader).
Like Scoop, Catherine Bush’s 2013 Accusation is a novel about a journalist at sea in an alien world of fact or fiction. Though Waugh’s novel’s protagonist was also based on a reporter in Addis Ababa (Bush’s protagonist travels to that city, as well), the similarities between the two books end there.
Bush’s narrator comes in contact with a charismatic and forceful black man who founded and managed a boys’ and girls’ circus company. Sara is drawn into sympathetic curiosity with this man (Raymond) when she finds out he’s been accused of abusing his young charges. The impetus, the reason for the sympathy? Sara, herself, had once been falsely accused, and charged (the case was dropped for lack of evidence), with stealing a woman’s wallet and running up some purchases, so she understands that the accusation will never be fully expunged in the minds of many, whatever the outcome of any trial.
This is a fine working plot for all kinds of reasons and avenues: the reactions and withdrawal of friends and lovers (Bush handles this with intelligence and conviction); the mining for clues and objective detail (Bush is exhaustive in the book’s best scenes, the middle-section questioning in Addis Ababa); and the acceptance or difficulty that one will never know the full details (Bush explores this from different angles, and though it ties in well with the Sara-David sub-plot, the grim persistence of the psychological reorientation overwhelms other possible moods and viewpoints).
It’s on this latter tendency, the main theme obsession, that the novel falters. Like her novel Claire’s Head, Bush is excellent at getting inside the ... er, head of the protagonist. But, though that metaphor is somewhat different in Accusation (the different locations, the many characters, the competing viewpoints and desires), Sara still suffocates the reader by not only appearing in most every scene, but by being every scene’s overwhelming conscience. A counter argument would consider that getting into others’ heads could have destroyed the factual mystery (Raymond – did he or didn’t he?), but the Canadian characters also in the dark (friend Juliet, lover David, as well as Sara’s newspaper boss) could have been offered sole-viewpoint scenes, and some of the Ethiopian characters, and Australian Sem Le, could have added layers to the confusion and emotion by offering us their unfiltered thoughts. The first-person voice could have been a better way to deal with the dominant perspective.
That major complaint aside, Accusation is narratively interesting, even thrilling in some places, especially in its final two-thirds, as well as patiently wise in its assessments.
As an addendum, the missing dialogue tags sometimes hindered my reading experience. I always understood who was speaking, it’s just that I had to halt on more than one occasion, which is fine if that’s part of the intent – William Gaddis comes to mind – but not so fine if it detracts from the narrative pace.