The Voyage Home, Little Brown 2004 (Abacus 2005)
When Anne Harrington decides to return from her father's funeral by ship, she is advised against it. The journey from Nigeria back to England is too long, she is warned: better to return to her old routine as quickly as possible. But Anne is not quite alone: with her she has her father's diaries from his years in Africa.
In 1962 Anne's parents, Miriam and David, made the opposite journey, arriving in Nigeria to work on a mission in the east of the country. David's diary charts the dramatic events that lead to the collapse of their marriage, his ejection from the mission, and his subsequent role as an aid worker in the Biafran war.
For Anne, meanwhile, the voyage home is not turning out to be the haven of solitude she craves. Deep inside the ship a stowaway seeks her out and asks her to help his sick wife. Anne confides in the first mate and finds herself drawn into a shadowy and ambiguous world of seduction, lies and murder.
Beautifully constructed and controlled, The Voyage Home is an absorbing, nuanced drama about moral choices and personal responsibility . . . The compelling denouement of this resonant and richly textured novel involves sexual violence and betrayal across the generations, but ends on a tentative note of hope.' Katie Owen, Sunday Telegraph
‘Rogers stands by her heroine, dovetailing the past with the present, the personal with political, and charting a voyage of self-discovery that is eloquent, lucid and entirely enthralling.' Hephzibah Anderson, Daily Mail
‘A startling and gripping exploration of love, grief, responsibility and power that moves effortlessly from the personal - the pain of a woman who has recently lost her father - to one of the most hotly debated and emotive issues of the moment, the plight of asylum seekers . . . A wonderfully humane and vividly written story that will keep you entranced until the last page.' Alex Clark, ‘Must Read of the Month', Red
‘Captures and distills the unique texture and smell of Africa . . . exquisitely crafted.' Sandra Howard, Spectator
The Guardian Saturday April 17, 2004
Helen Falconer is enchanted by Jane Rogers's poetically transparent prose in The Voyage Home .
Anne has buried her missionary father and taken possession of his diaries, which she will read on the voyage home to England from Nigeria. Hiding from life, she has chosen to return by sea, one of only three passengers on a towering, sparsely manned container ship. Wandering at night along its deserted corridors, she comes upon two stowaways desperate for help - a young man and his dangerously ill wife. The woman is pregnant; a baby, ready to be born, heaves within her: "it is only a layer of skin away. It is close enough to be watching Anne."
In parallel, Anne reads her father's diaries about his time as a missionary in Nigeria. He writes about his dedication to the people and to his God; he describes the wisdom and tolerance with which he instructs the lives of others; he reveals his compassion for their weaknesses. His words expose him as an arrogant fool unable to take moral responsibility for his own actions. This holier-than-thou patriarch has almost destroyed his daughter by alternately encouraging her to grow and then dancing vigorously on her nascent dreams. The adult Anne has never broken this frustrating pattern, always allowing one powerful man or other to colonise her life in the name of love. It was her married lover's decision, not Anne's, to terminate her unborn child. He, of course, has a new baby by his wife.
Deep in the black hold of the ship, Anne knows, a foetus wriggles, trapped within its dying mother. Deciding medical help is vital, Anne reveals the woman's existence to an apparently sympathetic officer, in reality the nearest man in authority willing to make decisions for her. In his diaries, the dead preacher dismissively describes his affair with Anne's nanny, an innocent Nigerian village girl whom he banished from his mission to an unknown fate after she became pregnant with his baby. Somewhere in the world this child was born and now is lost.
During the voyage it becomes clear that the ailing woman has not been taken to a sick bay but tossed over the rail into the sea, so that the sailors will not be fined for smuggling refugees. Anne keeps imagining the unborn child as still alive, far below on the ocean floor. "Floating and moving in that element, surviving there without air as he had lived in his mother's womb, his movement slow and graceful, his tiny hands raised to his mouth in wonder as coloured fish swam by; he would be upright, like a sea horse, his huge eyes filled with delight."
The threads of Anne's stunted existence - the mother-child murder, her father's lost illegitimate daughter, her own abortion - twist around each other in a crushing cycle of conceptions snuffed out before birth, bright buds of new life stamped on in the dark. This is the terrible pattern that must be broken if Anne is to raise her eyes and move forward instead of trudging wearily in her own footsteps, endlessly, pointlessly, round and round. Somehow the children have to be recovered and properly born into this world; life must win out over the smothering hands of violent male authority.
As in Rogers's six previous novels, including Mr Wroe's Virgins and the award-winning Island, the geographical journey taken in The Voyage Home is not important: what counts is the emotional voyage it reflects, delivering the characters safely to new internal destinations. And, like all her previous work, this novel is presented to us in her inimitably transparent style. Her prose is deeply poetic, yet so clear that reading it is like gazing through a window at her world - a psychological landscape both shocking and bizarrely beautiful, a land laid waste by some man-made disaster but now stippled with faint shoots of green.
Scotland on Sunday - Sun 28 Mar 2004
Troubled legacy of international relations ADAM PIETTE
NOVELS stand or fall on the boldness of the connections they make between their storylines. Jane Rogers' new novel is extraordinarily bold. The central theme is the voyage home of Anne, a young artist and teacher, after the death of her father in Nigeria. This is shadowed by the story of her father's missionary work there in the lead-up to the Biafran wars in the 1960s, told in the form of his diary which Anne reads on the ship. She discovers two stowaways in the hold and mistakenly shops them to the racist crew. The killing of a pregnant asylum seeker, casually thrown overboard, haunts the novel with Tempest-like images of the unborn child in deep sea. Anne's story alternates with her father's disastrous affair with a young black girl and his attempts to work off his guilt in the famine and war. The narrative of the famine is harrowing - a blast of images which are the core of the book.
Such juxtaposition risks melodrama, but the point of twinning the stories of father and daughter is to suggest an alternative history of England in the transition from the postcolonial 1960s to the new identities of our times. It is also a father-daughter novel of severe ethical self-questioning.
Rogers makes David a liberal missionary because she wants to test the idea that the guilt and self-harming anorexic anxieties of many post-feminist young women may have something to do with Africa, with the botched inheritance from their fathers' Christian-imperial project. If she's right, she may also be right to sense some continuity between the hounding of asylum-seekers in this country and the repressed guilt carried over from the West's abusive involvement in Africa. She also explores, with great delicacy and courage, the obscure roots that colour women's attitudes to child-bearing - the idea of the gestational body infected by guilt over the starvation of millions in places the West has hidden away at the back of its imagination.
This might make the novel sound preachy but it isn't. It is difficult, and harsh in the light it casts on uncomfortable issues. It is also powerfully imagined, a real web of forces, as in the net of lines connecting Anne's body to that of the woman thrown overboard, and to the bodies starving in Biafra. The harsh anti-sex message of the book is open to parody as militant feminism, with the indictment of David's colonial affair - and the ways Anne is mistreated and abused by the men in her life - giving a very puritan representation of how sexuality tempts women to become passive or complicit to male violence.
But this is to mistake Anne for Jane Rogers. The real point is that it is just this puritanism about the sexual body which is the dark inheritance from the missionary zeal of previous generations. In other words, we are still secretly puritan about sex, despite our addiction to sensationalism. Christian conscience has morphed into neurotic suspicion, breeding violent self-recrimination. What a book. What an astonishing achievement
Author Interview on The Voyage Home
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