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by Gaye Shortland (Poolbeg Press)

Irish Emigrant Book Review, No.49 (August 1999)

A novel set in the Saharan sands of Niger would at first glance appear to have little connection with Ireland, apart from the nationality of the author.  Ms Shortland, however, in her description of the Tuareg culture, draws comparisons with the Irish way of life which attest to the universality of humanity. Ellen, a Cork woman brought up by a father with a love of adventure, travels from Nigeria to Niger in search of Amodi, the Tuareg man she loves, and comes face to face with an alien culture which she strives to understand. In this she succeeds to a certain extent by drawing comparisons with her own culture; when she looks for a word to describe the intense hospitality of the Tuaregs, the only one she can come up with is “flaithiulacht”. Amodi leaves a charm spiked on a thorn tree, just as Irish people have left “prayers” on trees for centuries, and the negative reaction to her comment on the size of a child reminds red-haired Ellen of the West Cork woman who felt it bad luck to meet her first thing in the morning. The Tuaregs, described as “Fearsome Blue Men who had raided and ruled the Sahara for centuries”, are noted for their all-prevailing use of an indigo dye which is introduced to the reader through the clothing of a dead man, a death which gives Ellen the excuse to travel to Niger where she hopes to find Amodi.  Her journey of discovery takes in the strange traditions of the Tuaregs, some of which, like the force-feeding of pubescent girls with milk to fatten them up, she finds repugnant. In the end she leaves a place of alien traditions and beautiful people, taking with her a lasting remembrance of her love for Amodi. 

Harmattan, which takes its name from a seasonal wind of the Sahara, is written with passion and humour, and demonstrates Ms Shortland’s impressive powers of description. At least partly autobiographical, the narrative takes the reader on a journey both internal and external with a cast of characters who contrive to be simultaneously childlike and mysterious.

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