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Book Reviews: Sand Queen and An African Affair 

Sand Queen                                                                                 An African Affair
Helen Benedict                                                                      Nina Darnton
Soho Press, 2011, $25                                                      Viking, 2011, $25.95

The con job that keeps the vast majority of humans carrying on business as usual while accepting that war is somehow necessary has been exposed by sages, poets, and novelists for centuries. Some of these works of art have been direct hits: “Lysistrata,” Johnny Got His Gun. And now we have Sand Queen. In writing what might be the first major woman’s war story and alternating points of view between opposing sides, Columbia professor Helen Benedict has created something enormously fresh and immediate on this sadly ancient topic.

Benedict authored The Lonely Soldier, a nonfiction study on the experience of women in Iraq. The lonely soldier got such a grip on Benedict’s sensibilities that she created a work of fiction to tell the intertwined stories of Kate and Naema. Kate is US Army and Naema an Iraqi medical student, and both have fallen down the black hole of war. The darkness keeps getting darker, both women struggling for their lives and sanity in a welter of violence and doomed love.

The story, informed by such extensive research, teaches about gender in the military, conditions in Iraq, the nightmare seedlings that bloom into PTSD. The tenacity of the human spirit and the degradation to which it’s brought amid the wasteland of warfare are eloquently rendered, moment by breathless moment; Benedict’s work aims straight for center body mass and unerringly slams it home, capturing the evil miasma of utter futility that consumes intelligent soldiers.

The rape of Mother Africa, perpetuated by the same greed-ridden impulses that drive bad juju around the world, is a lesser-known head of the same hydra. Perhaps that’s because the masters are still succeeding in utilizing warring factions against one another so neatly that they scarcely need to show their faces.

Lindsay, the heroine of New Paltz resident Nina Darnton’s An African Affair, is an American journalist with a burning desire to catch a glimpse of those faces. Based in Lagos, Nigeria, during a time of upheaval, Lindsay scores an interview with the president, a nasty thug-puppet on his way out. Opposition figures still have very short life expectancies, and the political turmoil and dope money flying around make her intrepid efforts to suss out the real story extremely dangerous. An amoral mercenary group, Solutions, Inc., seems to be instrumental in much of the worst mischief; a blond CIA operative named Vickie may be the closest thing around to a good guy in this tangled web. Lindsay begins dating a handsome but elusive art dealer who adds his own complications.

A journalist who lived in Africa for five years, Darnton conveys the overall sense of danger and futility well, but we never quite get why Lindsay’s obsessed with Mr. Art Dealer or how it really feels to be kidnapped. Darnton has an intelligent gaze, a great heart, and a story to tell here, but hasn’t quite found her natural voice as a novelist. One hopes she’ll keep trying. The stories of women on the front lines need so desperately to be told.

Helen Benedict will read 9/10 at 2pm at the Hudson Opera House with actor Nicole Quinn; also 10/6 at Golden Notebook, Woodstock, and 10/30 at Inquiring Minds, Saugerties.

Nina Darnton will read Sunday 8/7 at 3pm at the Kleniert/James Arts Center in Woodstock, sponsored by Golden Notebook (please note change of date).
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  • Anne Pyburn reviews two books by Helen Benedict and Nina Darnton.


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