BOOK REVIEW: 'A Dancer in the Dust': A Marvelous African Love Story

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

A little over a year ago, I reviewed Thomas H. Cook's genre-breaking crime novel "Sandrine's Case":

The publisher must have liked my review because they used a quote from it on the dust jacket of Cook's new novel, "A Dancer in the Dust" (The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Inc., 320 pages, $26.00; also available as an eBook).

BOOK REVIEW: 'A Dancer in the Dust': A Marvelous African Love Story


Using flashbacks, Cook tells the story of young foreign aid worker Ray Campbell, working in the newly independent sub-Saharan fictional African nation of Lubanda. The idealistic 25-year-old, on a trip to a remote part of the country, meets Martine Aubert, a white woman farmer about his age, a native of Lubanda, but set apart because of her race.

This part of the story reminded me of "White Material", a 2011 film by French director Claire Denis. I haven't seen the film but I found this on Imdb:

"In White Material, the great contemporary French filmmaker Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau travail), known for her restless, intimate dramas, introduces an unforgettably crazed character. Played ferociously by Isabelle Huppert (Story of Women, The Piano Teacher), Maria is an entitled white woman living in Africa, desperately unwilling to give up her family’s crumbling coffee plantation despite the civil war closing in on her. Created with Denis’ signature full-throttle visual style, which places the viewer in the center of the maelstrom, White Material is a gripping evocation of the death throes of European colonialism and a fascinating look at a woman lost in her own mind."

Martine, the daughter of a Belgian couple who bought land in Lubada because it was cheap,  is anything but "entitled" with her hardscrabble subsistence farm, but her race sets her apart in a country that's trying to throw off its colonial past.

Ray meets Martine in a market and is invited to have dinner with her. Ray is attracted to this tall, red-haired woman.   Martine is more cautious, but I sensed that she was drawn to the idealistic American. She's leery of his connection to the country's dictator, who seems to be modeled on Zimbabwe's president for life, Robert Mugabe. Or maybe the Idi Amin of Uganda and "The Last King of Scotland." Or any other tyrant in Africa or elsewhere. The leader of Lubanda has plans for Martine's land that conflict with her views.

Flash forward two decades: Ray Campbell is now a cautious, New York City based risk management consultant. He has never forgotten Martine and the murder in New York of a friend of his from his time in Lubanda makes him reconsider his time in the country:

“In Lubanda, twenty years before, I’d rolled the dice for a woman who was not even present at the table, and on the outcome of that toss, a braver and more knowing heart than mine had been forfeited.”

In "A Dancer in the Dust" Cook has created another very readable genre-twisting thriller/love story/crime novel that will captivate readers from the start to the finish. I'm putting this novel on my imaginary list of the 10 best books of 2014.

Thomas H. Cook
Thomas H. Cook

About the author 

Thomas H. Cook (b. 1947) is the author of nearly two dozen critically lauded crime novels. Born in Fort Payne, Alabama, Cook published his first novel, "Blood Innocents", in 1980 while serving as the book review editor of Atlanta magazine. Two years later, on the release of his second novel, "The Orchids", he turned to writing full-time. Cook published steadily through the 1980s, penning such works as the Frank Clemons trilogy, a series of mysteries starring a jaded cop. 

He found breakout success with "The Chatham School Affair" (1996), which won an Edgar Award for best novel. His work has been praised by critics for his attention to psychology and the lyrical nature of his prose. Besides mysteries, Cook has written two true-crime books, "Early Graves" (1992) and the Edgar-nominated "Blood Echoes" (1993), as well as several literary novels, including "Elena" (1986). He lives and works in New York City.

Cook's website:

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