Borderlines by Michela Wrong

20th Aug 2015

A tense legal thriller which conjures the sights and sounds of Africa and questions Western involvement in the continent. Michela Wrong's début has big ambitions, but does it deliver?

Michela Wrong is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a foreign correspondent.  She has been writing about Africa for over 20 years after postings with Reuters in Cote d’Ivoire and Zair. She is the author of three non-fiction titles that have examined Mobutu’s rise and fall, studied the little written about Red Sea nation of Eritrea and told the story of Kenyan corruption whistle-blower John Githongo.

Her non-fiction books on contemporary Africa aim to be accessible to both members of the general public and experts in the field and she brings the issues and ideas she has examined in her previous books to her first novel, Borderlines.

At the centre of her debut is Paula Shakleton: a smart, ambitious but troubled lawyer who is tempted into working for an African government by a brilliant human rights lawyer. Fleeing from heartbreak over the death of her lover, she agrees to help with a border dispute between two small African nations which caused two damaging wars.

The novel is slow to start but Michela does a good job of peppering the first few pages with clues as to where the story might go, keeping the reader intrigued and guessing from the beginning. Paula is instantly recognisable as a strong, independent woman but Michela creates a character that is wholly three-dimensional, with flaws and complexities that bring her to life and which holds the story together.  She is suffering from the loss of her lover and has all but given up on her ‘botched, interrupted, pointless demi-life’. You are drawn into thinking that her adventure in Africa is either going to make or break her.

At times Michela’s writing can feel quite clunky. There are points that leap out from the page as anomalies, such as the moment an unfamiliar aroma is broken down into 6 different herbs and spices (she must have a really good nose) or the 1950’s diary extracts that feature phrases such as ‘old girl’ and ‘chaps’. It feels a little clichéd at times, as though Michela perhaps wrote them in to give her characters more depth but ended up overshooting the mark a little.

The novel sparkles when Paula describes the local landscapes and the book raises important, pertinent questionsPassages about Paula’s past with her lover are also anomalies of a sort. They are far less exciting and vivid than the ‘real time’ moments we spend with Paula in North Darrar. The novel sparkles when Paula describes the local landscapes and the book raises important, pertinent questions. Spending time in a refugee camp, Paula has a conversation about the use of the term ‘Internally Dispersed Persons’, rather than refugees, highlighting the use of terminology to dehumanise people during conflict. Interviewing a local historian, he describes the broad lines of history, explaining that ‘the entire world today signs up to the American capitalist dream, which is why our own boys and girls keep dying in the Mediterranean trying to reach it!’ It’s a passage that instantly brings to mind recent news reports, placing the novel into a world we recognise.

Despite the book’s tendency towards clunky, clichéd segments, this is a novel that shows a lot of promise from a debut writer.  It is topical and raises questions about the portrayal of nations in modern media, something which isn’t a surprise from such a respected international journalist. The novel also takes a swipe at outdated representations of Africa as a purely impoverished land. Michela writes richly of the beautiful landscapes and the plight of citizens in a politically tumultuous landscape, through the eyes of an outsider. Borderlines an engaging, informed novel that could be the start of an exciting career in fiction for Michela.