Dry Season by Gabriela Babnik

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Translated by Rawley Grau

Reviewed by Chelsea McGill

Ana, a 62-year-old graphic designer from Slovenia, has run away to a completely foreign place – Burkina Faso. There she meets Ismael, a 27-year-old former street kid with a history of abuse, and they begin a relationship despite – or perhaps because of – their differences. As Ana and Ismael take turns telling us, the readers, about their complex and pain-filled lives, we wander with them further into the dream captivating them.

This novel plays with the stereotypes of the old white woman in Africa as a tourist and the street kid with a history of abuse. Ana and Ismael both are and are not prime examples of their stereotype. Underneath his rough exterior, Ismael thinks deeply and is widely read. He can engage intellectually with the world around him. He isn’t really the fighting, drug dealing street kid that the stereotype would lead you to expect – although he does get involved with those kinds of activities sometimes.

Ana tells us that she chose Burkina Faso because of its complete dissimilarity to where she came from. But the longer she stays, the more she realizes that this new place is not all that foreign after all; she has had similar affairs in the past (with dark-skinned, younger men) and this seems like a repeat all over again. Or did those other affairs actually happen?

One thing that Ana and Ismael share is their inner loneliness. They are both orphans: Ana was raised by an adoptive family who did not give her any affection; Ismael was raised by his abusive, possibly crazy mother and then lived on the streets by himself after her death. Both of them are deeply affected by the lack of love and attention they received in their childhood. Both of them think that they may have found the solution to this emptiness. But both of them also know that this thing that they have, their relationship, isn’t going to last: Ana will go home, and Ismael will be left on the streets to fend for himself again. In this context, can they really let each other in?

Of the two narrators, Ana is the most unreliable. Her narration is pure stream-of-consciousness, flitting back and forth between the present and the past and her imagination, and it is not always clear which one you are reading at any one time. An image will remind her of something and suddenly she is telling you about her mother, or about her ex-husband, or about her son. There is a lot of trauma in her past that just keeps pouring out of her. There is also something literary about her narrative: the books she has read get tangled up with what has actually happened to her, so it is difficult (for both the character and the reader) to untangle the truth from the fiction.

Ismael’s narrative is much more straightforward; I found myself looking forward to his sections so that I could find out what was actually going on in the present. He recognizes that Ana is not really mentally present a lot of the time, that she gets lost in her thoughts, and he expresses his frustration about this. Ismael’s background is also full of trauma, but it seems that he has dealt with it in a better way. Or maybe it’s just that Ismael doesn’t have the time to dwell on it that Ana does.

The author, Gabriela Babnik, has done an MA on contemporary Nigerian literature and lives part-time in Burkina Faso. This deep knowledge of the cultural context prevents the stereotyping that often appears in novels about Africa (or other developing countries). When stereotypes do come into play, it seems that the author is trying to say something else, to use the stereotypes to twist the story in a completely different direction. Because the thing that you expect to happen is not what actually happens. Or if it does, it has a different meaning.

I do not usually read novels about mixed race/age love affairs in tropical climes, because they often perpetrate ideas that I do not agree with. The beginning of this book seemed that it would go in that direction, and I was disappointed. Then I kept reading and the novel completely surprised me, in the best possible way.

This novel won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. It completely deserves it, and I would not be surprised to see this translation win more awards this year. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and it is definitely one to watch.

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Chelsea blogs at The Globally Curious.

Gabriela Babnik, Dry Season (Istros Books; 2015) 9781908236265, 280 pp., paperback original.

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