cover image Still Waters in Niger

Still Waters in Niger

Kathleen Hill. Triquarterly Books, $24.95 (206pp) ISBN 978-0-8101-5089-8

The unnamed, Irish-American narrator of Hill's transporting, semi-autobiographical first novel returns, after 17 years, to the searing heat of West Africa and the quiet sound of children murmuring thanks to Allah when a coin is dropped in their open palms. She comes to visit her grown daughter, Zara, who works in a medical clinic in Matameye, Nigeria, near the town Zara had lived in as a child. Alone together for a month (the narrator has left her academic husband behind in New York), mother and daughter reconstruct the strange years they spent as expatriates there and reconcile their changing roles. With a poet's odd precision, Hill resurrects the myth of Demeter and Persephone to help her describe the pathos attached to a child's coming of age and inevitable abandonment of the parent. In the narrator's version, Persephone is swallowed up and Demeter left to stare at ""a field of asphodel, stupid beneath the sun,"" and listen to the ""long wink of silence."" The narrator's profound, unflashy observations about motherhood, the necessities and extravagances of survival, the effect of travel and dislocation and the peculiar beauty of the drought-struck land are the work of a brilliant essayist. Hill avoids both overexplaining and overexclaiming, and subtly flavors her story with words of the native Hausa language as well as the French of the colonists. Evocative dreams and disturbing memories, superimposed on the narrator's present experience, make a patchwork travelogue similar in effect to Ondaatje's Running in the Family. This is not a novel in the traditional sense, and may frustrate readers with its oneiric refusal to be literal, but it is nonetheless an exquisite piece of writing. (May)