Gappah’s fiction overall celebrates the people history ignores.
Historical figures are often deified and their stories passed down, with alternative perspectives left out of these recollections. British hero Dr. David Livingstone is famed for his explorations in Africa and advocacy for the enslaved, but instead of writing another book about him, Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah gives voice to the “dark companions” neglected in most accounts of his life. Out of Darkness, Shining Light posits a fictional “what if” about the native attendants who helped him on his journeys and, after his death, transported his body from modern-day Zambia to the Indian Ocean’s coast to then make the journey to be buried in England. As they trek the treacherous 1000 miles across the continent, they love and squabble among themselves, reconcile their feelings towards their beloved leader with his moral grayness and examine themselves under the looming shadows of slavery and European colonialism.
Halima, Livingstone’s cook, is the first singular narrator of this three-part saga. Emboldened by the first spirit of her mother, a harem slave to a royal in Zanzibar, she aspires to true freedom with property to her name. Resourceful with a biting wit, she convinces the caravan to return Livingstone to his people with the possibility of recognition and reward. Jacob Wainwright, a freed man formally educated in a missionary school in India, picks the story up after Halima, chronicling the physical and psychological toil the group faces along the way while contemplating what he believes is his calling into the priesthood ministering to the continent of his birth.
Gappah characterizes the two’s voices with a sharp distinction, down to differentiating how they spell certain vocabulary based on their level of structured learning — Halima’s versions are phonetically spelled, Jacob’s follows the written form. Halima speaks more directly and informally, peppering her thoughts with self-assurances. Jacob’s prose is verbose and prideful in his self-deprecation. These polarized points of view, while linguistically vivid in personality, likely tend towards developing a preference for one protagonist over the other and may result in an uneven readthrough. Halima bounces back and forth in time during her recollections, which can be confusing to follow. Jacob’s “holier than thou” persona can be grating, particularly to anyone put off by religious fervor. Neither are fond of their counterpart either, so at times it feels like the narratives are competing rather than unifying in a cohesive, overarching tale.
Colorful but overall incidental particulars about the expeditioners’ interpersonal relationships occasionally weigh down the book. Its “infodump” of people, places and things encountered is a lot to process, even after consulting the map and glossary the author provides. Perhaps it reflects the drudgery of traversing uncooperative geography and weather and circumnavigating village politics to find respite and acquire supplies.
What cuts through these thick layers is the subtle permeation of white exceptionalist views even into the psyches of supposed virtuous souls. Despite his reputation as an abolitionist, Livingstone accepted the aid and friendship of slave traders after being abandoned and falling ill during a failed mission and he habitually purchased slaves as his servants—though he did pay them wages—and wives for his charges, purporting he’d freed them from their masters. Halima, being one of those women, begins to worry that returning the doctor to his family would indenture her to his son, and Jacob is disturbed a Christian man committed such immorality. When successive misfortunes befall them as if they were cursed for his wrongdoings, they’re forced to question their loyalty to him and determine whether they’re continuing their journey for him or if they instead owed it to their fallen compatriots to see it through.
When one of the travelers’ own violently betrays them, he rages against Livingstone’s memory and the invasive white colonialism he represents. He accuses Jacob for his self-hatred in abandoning his heritage, embracing European culture and scheming to convert his “heathen” brethren to Christianity. While generally unshaken by this, the English missionaries he so revered deny him his dream of the priesthood in the end, deeming him a blasphemer for his unsanctioned apostolic work.
Though not without compositional stumbles, Gappah’s fiction overall celebrates the people history ignores. Out of Darkness relishes in their strong-willed and flawed humanity as they convene in a common goal and define themselves both because of and despite their past bondage.