I confess—I read I Dreamed of Africa thinking I wasn’t going to like it. It had a picture of Kim Basinger on the cover, and I don’t especially like her. It’s about Africa, and I usually find those stories so overwhelmingly depressing that I can’t stand to read them. So, this did not bode well for my reading experience. To counter all of that, though, I had Chris’ recommendation, who found the book so beautiful “I cannot bear to see [it] on celluloid.” Wow! That’s a pretty ringing endorsement. That plus the fact that Chris does not often steer me wrong outweighed my initial reservations. But I still went into it thinking that I wouldn’t like it.
With that said, I didn’t like the book, but not for the reasons listed above. I didn’t like Kuki Gallman’s memoir because I often became so angry at the narrator that I wanted to throw the book across the room (FYI — if you Google “throw the book across the room,” you’ll find that this is actually a fairly common description used by book bloggers to describe their purely visceral reaction to a book, often prompted by its ending.)
Kuki Gallman’s story begins in Italy, where, as a young woman, she dreams of Africa. I grant you that she does have a compelling writing style and her imagery throughout the memoir is beautiful. But like any memoir, she only shares the parts of her life that she chooses. I always find myself wondering about the stories not told. I had the same experience reading The Glass Castle, which I’ll be writing about later in the week.
Back to Kuki’s story: when her life’s journey does, in fact, take her to Africa, she knows she is home. But before she gets there, she suffers a horrific accident that leaves her nearly crippled. Amazingly enough, a wonderful surgeon eventually is able to literally set her straight again.
When she suffers this accident, she has a very young son. Her recovery from the accident requires an 8-month stay in the hospital. During this time, her son stays with Kuki’s mother. When she gets out of the hospital, she and her new husband move with her son to Africa. So, let me get this straight: She takes a little boy, whom she has been away from since he’s had much long-term memory and moves him somewhere he has never been. Sure, why not?
In this early instance, she struck me as a selfish person who acts first and thinks of consequences later. This is reinforced throughout the book, and annoyingly enough, she often points out that she had great foreboding at certain times, but she, except for one instance, doesn’t listen to that voice in her head. Of course, she is writing about these events after the fact, so perhaps ascribing certain feelings of dread adds to the drama.
I don’t mean to disparage the tragedies she suffered. I felt her sense of loss keenly throughout the book, and in fact, it is through her loss that she sets her life on the path she pursues to this day. What I also felt throughout the book is that she was quite spoiled, used to getting her own way, rich enough to pursue whatever path she felt like following, and self-absorbed. I told myself to keep in mind the time period in which the book is set. Kuki was essentially a hippie determined to find herself. In her efforts to find herself, however, it is amazing what and who she lost along the way. I was repeatedly struck by the great carelessness with which she lived her life.
She writes quite poignantly about those around her and the tragedies they’ve suffered and endured. She uses this as a context for the harsh life they live in Africa. But it struck me that they should then value life even higher, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. She writes about life-threatening situations that her children find themselves in and what all of those events meant, but all I could do is ask, “Where were you? Why didn’t you know these things were going on in your children’s lives?”
The noble path that she ultimately takes is to establish the Gallman African Conservancy/Gallman Memorial Foundation. She does this in memory of those she’s lost. Throughout the book, she writes that she feels that she has to earn the right to live where she does. So why didn’t she pursue this sooner? Where was her passion for this cause before? She had the same connections, same abilities, but it takes tragedy in her life before she actually stops and looks around and pays attention to more than herself.
I give her a great deal of credit for putting her life story out there. It is remarkable for many things, but I just couldn’t get over the fact that, if I were to meet her, I wouldn’t like her. Isn’t that awful? I’m probably not supposed to feel that way about someone who is devoting her life to such a worthwhile cause. I’d really like to hear how wrong I am on this one—someone set me straight.