book review: Black Mamba Boy

title: Black Mamba Boy (long listed for the Orange Prize for fiction 2010)

author: Nadifa Mohamed

publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux; August, 2010

Main character: Jama

To me, the Middle East is a true crossroad of the world and this really comes to light in Black Mamba Boy. In the book, it seems Jama’s quest takes him throughout the entire region where he is exposed to so many languages, foods, colors and vistas that they can’t help but enrich and educate him. His survival depends upon him learning to know when to trust people and situations because he thinks he has no one but himself to rely upon.

It’s hard to remember how young Jama actually is when he loses his parents because he spends so much of his life hustling to stay alive. Jama shifts from place to place, first to find his father, then I think because he’s just unable to stay in one place because he never has. He wonders throughout lands in Africa and in the Middle East learning what it’s like to be a foreigner in his own land because he has no family and because the British and the Italians are claiming and redefining the territory.  His wondering is not aimless, he does have purpose in his adventure.

There is a mystical nature to the book reference in the title. Also, Jama’s parents appear to him in visions to provide guidance and comfort. In fact, there’s a lot to this book. It is steeped with the history of the beginnings of WWII, colored with the geography and spiced with food and language.  There are a few clunky passages but it is a well told story. This is one of the few books recently that I didn’t try to skim through passages and finish quickly. I actually let myself savor each word so that I could create a movie in my head while reading.

Jama looked up. Some of the houses had wooden shutters and intricately carved balconies, and one had a mammoth, onion-shaped dome sitting squat on its roof. Ancient mosques, their walls uneven with repeated whitewashing, stood separate from the homes, like dignified grandparents sitting on the street watching the world go by. The silver cross of the Orthodox Church shone a supernatural white on the skyline, behind the star and crescent of a mosque. Jama let out a happy sigh at the covered market bedecked with bright awnings over the stalls, goods neatly laid out on tables like booty recovered from Aladdin’s cave. Despite its antiquity, Massawa was tidy and well kept, with pockets of incredible wealth hidden like teeth in an infant’s gums.  Servants piled in and out of the grand homes of Armenian, Arab, Jewish and European merchants. Everywhere there was the sound of quiet and profitable industry. And yet, nearby lay shantytowns where sparsely filled cooking pans burned easily and Italians in shiny boots idled about in cheap bars, nursing glasses of beer.

I could have used a map and a glossary to help with comprehension, but terms that I needed to know could be figured out in context. Situations feel real because they are based upon the life of the author’s father. This may be more of an adult book that YA but an interested teen could enjoy this book. It would be good to suggest to someone who has read and enjoyed The Kite Runner, Three Cups of Tea or Purple Hibiscus.

author interview

I received a review copy from the publisher.

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