Saturday, January 29, 2005

Book 2: Zanzibar by Giles Foden

I knew there was a book called ‘Zanzibar’ before V & I had at the greatest ever vacation there in September 2004. I postponed picking up this book till after because I wanted it not to influence our trip in any way by setting up preconceived notions. I was right to do so.

It's setting is beautiful Zanzibar and Tanzania and it's main plot is guided by real events: the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Tanzania by Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Nick Karolides (USAID marine biologist), Jack Queller (a spy) & Miranda Powers (an American embassy worker ) are Americans in Tanzania, and the book is narrated around their activities, all embroiled in the events of the bombing in Dar.

Quiller is an interesting character, battling the loss of his wife and perceived failures, trying to make recompense and drive a deeper understanding of the forces behind terrorist activity. Nick is escaping from the rut of working in Florida, a mother who is increasingly religious in the wake of her husband’s death from a shark attack and the memories of his father. Miranda Powers is beginning her career in the US diplomatic service with her first posting in Dar and aiming to ‘make something of herself’ to fulfil the wishes of her dead father. Wisely, Foden skirts past the bombers who, though crucial to the plot, are incidental to the narrative. Real events are reported so as to make one sit up and take notice – a balanced mix of fiction and reality.

From the author's note I got the following interesting information: Apparently, Foden completed most of the novel before September 11, 2001 changed the world. For many, history stopped that day and when it started again the world was a more dangerous place. Although there is no mention of those events, 'Zanzibar' trashes the notion September 11 was a one-off.

This book is so different from how I imagined it. The image that lingers is not the white sands and palms of Zanzibar but the haunting vision, only barely allured to, that Bin Laden will strike again. The book explains how the hydra-like nature of cells that make up the al-Qaida network ensure this. The book really shows off the diligence of Foden's research into the organisation.

Some of ‘Zanizbar's’ power was diluted by the completely unconvincing love story between Nick and Miranda. Yet, it was an enjoyable read - a book that provokes thinking about modern day history – to suggest a view of both Islamic fundamentalism and American Imperialism and the struggle between them.

As a thriller 'Zanzibar' is a slow read, setting the scene meticulously for two thirds of the book. The action occurs in the last third of the book and leaves one shivering with the thought of living in a time when the cold realities of modern day terrorism can wreak havoc anywhere, anytime and often without warning.

For me, just the scenes of Zanzibar described by Foden alone made the book worth reading. The descriptions of the sea, sand, palm trees and marine life made fresh my memories of our fantabulous time there. All in all a book worth reading.

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