Had Jane Austen been in the Peace Corps in Africa in the 1980s, Mating
is the book she might have written. Set in Botswana in the days before the end of apartheid, Norman Rush's novel is, essentially, a comedy of manners played out in Austen's approved milieu: a country village. Granted, the village in question, Tsau, is a utopian society created by the great American anthropologist Nelson Denoon, and run largely by and for disenfranchised and abused African women. Still, the issue that interests Rush (and the one that fueled Austen's novels) is the age-old question of who mates with whom, and why? The unnamed narrator is a 32-year-old postgraduate student in anthropology whose dissertation has just gone south on her. Drifting around the edges of the expatriate community in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, she first meets Denoon:
He was smiling at Kgosetlemang--the event was to be considered over with, clearly--and I could tell that his gingivae were as good as mine; which is saying a lot. I attend to my gums. People in the bush don't always attend to their oral hygiene, not to mention other niceties. There was no sign of that here. I of course am fanatical about my gums because my idea of what the movie I Wake Up Screaming is about is a woman who has to keep dating to find her soulmate and she's had to get dentures. I have very long-range anxieties.
Entranced by this potential soulmate, our heroine strikes out into the Kalahari Desert with a couple of donkeys and follows him to his utopia where sexual attraction, regional politics, and social experimentation make for very strange bedfellows, indeed.
Mating is a fiercely intelligent, hugely ambitious novel that takes on feminism, socialism, political corruption, foreign-sponsored rural development projects, and, yes, male-female relations in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and disturbing. Certainly Rush's language is a big part of what makes the novel work: the narrator's combination of elevated vocabulary and wacky non sequiturs is inspired. When, for example, Denoon explains to her that most of the women in Tsau are celibate and therefore so is he, she reflects that "of course the spiritus rector of a female community would need to be a sexual solitary, at least during the foundational period." She then wonders if "this situation was the analog of western series on television where the female watchership shrank to nothing when the producers let the marshal get married." Mating is remarkable for its wit, its acuity, and its ability to satirize without demeaning; it's also a heck of an entertaining story. Jane Austen would have been proud. --Alix Wilber
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From Publishers Weekly
Even readers who remember the luminous stories in Rush's debut, Whites , may not be prepared for the cleverness, humor, insight into human nature and intellectual acuity demonstrated in this accomplished novel. Even more remarkable is his facility in conveying the voice and sensibility of his amusingly self-absorbed narrator, a feminist anthropologist whose pursuit of a famous social scientist is a timely riff on a perennial theme, What do women want? At an impasse with her doctoral thesis and judging herself ready to find a mate, the narrator sets off alone across the Kalahari Desert from Gaborone, Botswana, to locate Nelson Denoon and the secret, experimental community he has created to give sanctuary and self-esteem to destitute or abused African women. Having barely survived her foolhardy trek, she finds Denoon ready to welcome her as a lover. In a wonderfully idiosyncratic voice, she chronicles the progress of their affair in what amounts to a parody of an academic study, rendered in a comical amalgam of Latin and French phrases, Briticismsstet/rl , scientific jargon, American vernacular, anthropological terms and African words. Because theirs is an intellectual as well as a sexual union, the emphasis is on philosophical discussions and informational exchanges, during which the reader learns a great deal about the geography, culture, economy, and social and political background of Botswana. Though the narrative flags at times--there are too few actual events and a bit too much detailed sociology--in the main readers will be captivated by the narrator's quirky, obsessive voice and the situation she describes: a game of amorous relationships complicated by feminist doctrine and an exotic locale. BOMC alternate.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
As in Whites ( LJ 2/15/86), Rush's first collection of stories, this novel juxtaposes the relationship of two white Americans in Botswana against village life in that country. A woman anthropologist narrates her pursuit of and life with Nelson Denoon, a utopian socialist who set up an experimental matriarchal culture among poor African women in a remote area. Having met Denoon at a party, the anthropologist undertakes a dangerous trek alone through the Kalahari to Tsau, the site. After she gains the acceptance of the women, she is permitted to join Denoon, and their love story develops, interspersed with incidents in the village. Though there is plenty of action and interaction among the characters, this is largely a novel of ideas and anthropological information. The humor is at a sophisticated level, as is the vocabulary. For public libraries with an educated community.- Ann Sapp, Montgomery Cty. Dept . of Public Libs . , Md.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
Plaudits for the concept of a woman pursuing and getting her intellectual equal, but, here, gabby and relentlessly high-minded lovers turn Rush's first novel (after the story collection, Whites, 1986) into a meeting of true minds with too long an agenda. When a 30-ish unnamed American woman discovers that her anthropological thesis, which she had come to research in Botswana, is invalid, she decides to be ``hedonic, think passim about my life and next steps'' and ``repose in the white utopia Gaborone was.'' Which she does until she meets the legendary Nelson Denoon, guru of rural development, preacher of a third way for African countries, and rumored to be in charge of a distant village, Tsau, run by and for women. Intrigued by his brilliance and reputation, the woman sets off alone across the Botswana desert, nearly dying in the attempt but finally reaching Tsau. The village is the vehicle for Denoon's ideas about women (``Every female is a golden loom''), religion (religious buildings are banned in Tsau), education, solar power, and just about everything else. The love affair-- exhaustively annotated and dissected all in the first person--is inevitable, and though they make agreeable love and though Denoon is all that he should be, it is the talk that matters--''I love your mind,'' she proclaims. They talk up a storm on everything from the ANC in South Africa to the anarchosyndicalists of Spain. But Tsau is not quite paradise--serpents exist, and Denoon himself changes after an accident in the desert, where he may have undergone a religious experience. Our heroine, disenchanted, returns to the US, but a mysterious message from Africa provokes her curiosity--she might venture another investigation of this most unusual man. In essence a love story, an unusual and credible one, with an exotic locale, and a colorful supporting cast; but the nonstop clever talk eventually provokes irritation rather than sympathy. A flawed novel of too many ideas, many good, but collectively too much. -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Norman Rush was born and raised in the San Francisco area, and graduated from Swarthmore College in 1956. He has been an antiquarian book dealer, a college instructor, and, with his wife, Elsa, lived and worked in Africa from 1978 to 1983. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Grand Street, and The Best American Short Stories of 1971, 1984 and 1985. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, including an NEA grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. His first book, Whites, a collection of short stories was highly-acclaimed and Mating, his first novel won the National Book Award for fiction and the prestigious Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize.
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