Ahmed's Revenge by John Wiley

Random House 1998 320 pp. 23.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Richard Wiley's outstanding new novel, Ahmed's Revenge, is by turns a mystery, a love story, a social portrait of an emerging African nation, and a tale of a scarred relationship between father and daughter.

In combining these elements so successfully, Wiley reminds us why reading novels is so much fun.

In 1968 Nora Hennessey Grant, Kenyan-born and England-educated, bought a farm along with her new husband Julius forty minutes outside "the dusty Maasai town of Narok." Before meeting Julius, she was "a city girl who thought a lot about her fingernails." Now she finds herself in the dusty struggle to maintain a successful farm.

"When the rains came or when our evening reading didn't suit us, we would sometimes get out Julius's maps and notice that our farm, along with those of Isak Dinesen near the town of Karen, and Elspeth Huxley out Thika way formed an obtuse triangle, with Julius and me at the pinnacle, which seemed right to us since we were alive and young and farming while those other two were not, one long gone and one buried, both of their lives mythologised in books and film and on the BBC."

By 1974, when the book opens, the Grants are well-established coffee growers, exporting valuable Kenyan beans across Europe. One night in Narobi on business, Julius and Nora have a fight, and Julius leaves the hotel. Nora decides to follow him, and discovers that Julius has been harboring a secret from her, not a mistress, as she had suspected, but a business deal that looks both dangerous and illegal. Nora keeps her knowledge of his apparent misdeed a secret from him.

Returning to their farm, they are startled one evening by the arrival of a lost baby elephant at their pond, "the breathing equivalents of tornadoes in the American Midwest," quickly followed by hungry lions. In a riveting scene awash with the convincing messiness of a real event, we witness the lions' attack on the elephant, followed by their awareness they are being watched by Nora, Julius, and some of their farmhands. The lions then attack the people, and in the terrifying rush a rifle goes off, wounding Julius. Taken to a Nairobi hospital by helicopter, Julius has his arm amputated. Facing a long and painful recovery, suddenly, without warning, Julius dies. The grief-stricken Nora slowly realizes, to her horror, that Julius did not die of surgical trauma; he was murdered.

Julius' death brings to town from England Nora's aging father, the former Minister of Wildlife for Kenya, Nathan Hennessey. Nora must then deal not only with her sudden and painful solitude, but with the realization that her difficult and distant father was somehow involved in Julius' death.

This beautifully paced story brings a surprise with every new scene. Nora's social relations with Detective Frederic Mubia, a red-suited, fundamentalist Christian, seem to echo the uneasy relations between colonialist England and former colony Kenya. Her seemingly chance meeting with Ralph Bunche N'deru, "a travel agent and safari man," and a former schoolmate, allows Wiley to develop an uncommon and unpredictable relationship between a resentful but ambitious man and a widow whose new and unusual status brings with it a welter of confusing emotions.

Julius' death "from the accidental configurations of a vile and hateful day" brings her in touch as well with the Kenyan upper class, among them Miro, a Kenyan opera singer and childhood acquaintance, and Mr. N'chele, "a fervent nationalist and a former political candidate," whose son figures prominently in the evil that lay behind Julius' demise. In trying to solve the mystery of the murder, she finds that she has "been surrounded by clowns with vendettas or slip-knot minds: the Mad Hatter and his doctor, a religious policeman in a red suit, and the father of my enemy."

She discovers that "I had not loved the wrong man but had loved the right man, who had acted wrongly, and what a difference there was in that, what power it gave me, what renewed strength. Jules hadn't betrayed me but had betrayed, instead, an aspect of himself. And, oh, how he'd grieved for it, oh, how clearly he'd known what he had done."

Her reconciliation with her husband's memory does not, however, allow her to come to terms with her father. In the portrait of the relationship between the father and the daughter we realize that this is a tragic story in the classical sense, in which the sins of the father are visited upon the child, in this case, a woman.

Ahmed's Revenge is composed of three parts, reflecting those of a life: "We live our lives in three acts: the first to know we are alive; the second, to try to understand; the third, to work and grow." Richard Wiley has presented us with a marvelous study of Kenya, of husbands and wives and fathers and daughters, and, most mysteriously, the human heart.