Life is a broken thing. It’s what we do with the pieces that defines us.
– Corban Addison
*Trigger warning: This novel and this review deal with serious issues that may be extremely distressing to some readers, so please be aware of this before continuing to read the review.
In 2012, I picked up a book from the library by an author whose name was new to me. The cover art was absolutely stunning and I instantly thought, “This looks like my kind of book.” I mean, look at that cover! There aren’t enough heart emojis to describe its loveliness. The novel, A Walk Across the Sun, was more than I ever hoped it would be, and I swore I would look for more work by the author, Corban Addison. If you’re interested in seeing my thoughts, you can read my goodreads review here. Just a warning, however, that around this time I didn’t put my time and effort into my reviews so it’s far from a good one. Fast forward to almost a decade later and I’ve finally followed through on my promise to read more of Addison’s work. Thankfully, my second foray into the brilliant mind of Corban Addison also did not disappoint.
Zoe Fleming is a young American human rights lawyer working in Lusaka, Zambia in 2011. Zoe works with a small team of lawyers who investigate serious sexual crimes against children. When Kuyeya, a young girl with Down Syndrome is found walking the streets of the city after having been raped, Zoe and her team, aided by veteran police officer Joseph Zabuta, begin the search for clues as to who could have perpetrated such a heinous crime. Their search for answers leads them down rabbit holes into the past of the young girl’s deceased mother, unraveling mysteries along the way that implicate powerful people in Zambian society while also setting important legal precedents that could help future victims of violent sexual crimes in Africa. But what will these powerful people do to stop their secrets from being unveiled, and how much will seekers of justice have to lose in order to see justice prevail?
“With The Garden of Burning Sand, it was my hope to write a story that would capture the African continent in all its astonishing beauty and heart-wrenching brokenness, and that would compel people to think about ways that they can combat the pandemic of violence against women and children around the world.”
Quote by Corban Addison, “The Story Behind the Garden of Burning Sand.” http://www.corbanaddison.com
On Corban Addision’s website, he tells the heartbreaking truth that there is a real life inspiration for The Garden of Burning Sand. He was introduced to the plight of children with disabilities in Africa through some friends who had started Special Hope Network, an NGO working with Zambian children. Many children with intellectual disabilities die by the age of 5, often having been neglected or abandoned due to the unwarranted superstitions that their disabilities bring curses upon their families. Secondly, he had learned of the case of a young girl with Down Syndrome in Lusaka who had been raped and whose case had been valiantly fought by a team of non profit lawyers and social workers who fought desperately to see justice served on her behalf.
This is a distressing but beautiful novel. Zoe is a very believable protagonist. She’s a fully formed human who is grappling with haunting memories from her past while simultaneously coping with the worries of the present, desperate to seek justice for those who can’t fight for themselves. Her strong and fiery passion for justice is juxtaposed nicely with the softness of her compassion, which we see in the scenes between her and Kuyeya, a girl often ostracized in a community where superstition places stigma on her very existence. As the narrative develops and the layers of Zoe’s past are peeled away, we begin to understand why finding justice for abused girls and women is something so dear to Zoe’s heart. Additionally, we begin to understand and share in Zoe’s deep love for Africa and its people.
Over the course of the novel, Zoe and her team are pitted against powerful people. Not just powerful people within Zambia’s sociopolitical world but also powerful people within US politics. Zoe finds herself at odds with her own father, a man quickly rising in the ranks to be the next Republican nominee for President of the United States. Side note: I don’t recall Addison ever expressly stating party, but he described the platform enough for readers to draw some conclusions. Their relationship is fraught with resentments and fractures that seethe and burn in the background of this novel, adding a whole new layer of intrigue. It’s very fascinating to be reading this book in today’s political climate. Addison published this book in 2013, prior to the era of Trump in which the friction between the two major US political parties would finally bubble to a full frantic boil. It’s easy to understand the subtle nuances that affect the relationship between Zoe and her father, balancing the love she still feels for him against the resentments of the past and her detestation of his political ideals. Further complicating their relationship is the loss of Zoe’s mother, whose past love and advocacy for the people of Africa Zoe carries with her into the future. In such a time of divisiveness, I imagine a lot of American citizens grapple with this very conundrum, trying to come to terms with how the person you thought you knew could become the person you see today.
If the thematic elements of this novel weren’t already loaded enough with child sexual abuse, this book also deals with the AIDS epidemic as it continues to ravage much of the African continent. In places like Zambia where prostitution is frequent, sexual crimes are rampant, and people lack an understanding of prevention and treatment, a horrible disease such as AIDS can spread at an alarming rate. Through its excellent and effective portrayal of the problem, this book is a fabulous call for the importance of investment in further research and assistance from Countries like the US with the means to make a difference. I know Addison did an intense amount of research for his novel, and I was horrified by some of the details. Especially some of the superstitions still pushed on the people by some (certainly not all) traditional African healers, or inyangas, which often show a blatant ignorance for how AIDS is spread and how it should be prevented. Such dangerous superstitions merely exacerbate the problem of AIDS within African populations and result in a drastic rise in the rates of sexual crimes committed against women and girls.
As a work of fiction, this book is superb. Strong, compelling characters with moving back stories are the driving force of the novel, but it’s infused with just enough mystery and intrigue to keep even the most vociferous thriller fan reading. The audiobook is narrated by a superbly talented Robin Miles, whose velvet voice lent an extremely authentic and reverent feel to the book. Despite it mostly being a legal drama, there were some truly suspenseful moments peppered throughout, as the lives of our courageous heroes were at constant threat by the powerful forces that sought to silence them. I’m even more endeared to this novel to know precisely how rooted in truth it is, as well as the fact that I believe Addison dealt with difficult issues in a way that was delicate and respectful. Not once in either of Addison’s books did I ever feel he was presenting anything simply for shock value or titillation, but solely to bring light to the plight of victims of gender based violence. Also, there is a very sweet love story for those who look for that kind of thing, though it’s understated enough to allow for Zoe and Kuyeya to take center stage in the narrative
This book will leave readers with an incredible moment of awakening about subjects to which they’ve probably given little thought, but it will also leave them with a bit of hope that it’s not too late to really make a difference. And, you’re right, Mr. Addison. This did make a very compelling book.