Dutch singer/actor Japin's debut draws on extraordinary real-life material: in 1837 two young Ashanti princes, Kwasi and Kwame, were taken to Holland, ostensibly to receive a European education, but in fact as peons in a cynical exchange between the Ashanti king (Kwame's father) and the still active slave traders. Kwasi tells the strange story as a gentle, peevish old man living on a failed coffee plantation in Java at the turn of the century. He remembers his jungle boyhood with cousin Kwame, the coming of the Dutch traders and his and Kwame's early years as curiosities at a Dutch school. Later embraced by the royal court, the two went on to college and became offbeat figures in Dutch society, struggling to persuade themselves that they had really found a new life. Kwasi, the more adaptable, cherished a passion for a Dutch princess until she married elsewhere for convenience. Kwame, deeply uneasy at his equivocal role, joined the army and was posted back to Africa where, eventually realizing that he was a mere plaything of the Dutch, he killed himself. Only toward the end of his life is Kwasi aware that he, too, has lived in self-deception. Japin tells the tale with imaginative empathy and, in the case of Kwame, truly powerful poetic re-creation. However, his incorporation of text from authentic 19th-century documents is disconcerting. This is an unusual story that could appeal to an appetite for the odd corners of history, but perhaps is too close to history to please the lovers of literary fiction who would at first seem to be its natural readers. (Nov. 21)
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Japin's beautifully written debut novel is based on the true story of two West African princes, Kwasi and Kwame, who are sent by the king of Ashanti (modern-day Ghana) to study in Holland in the 1830s. In Holland, they attend a private boarding school, where Kwasi excels at his studies and Kwame at art. Neither boy fits in; they are ridiculed by some and shunned by others. Kwame never ceases to long for the day he can return home to Africa, whereas Kwasi embraces the new culture and tries to blend in as much as possible. The boys' different reactions to Dutch culture drive a wedge between them, and they choose separate paths. As Kwame tries to return home, Kwasi accepts a government post, only to encounter prejudice from every side. Both face harsh disappointments: Kwame from the home he thought would not forsake him, and Kwasi from the realization that the abandonment of his native culture has harmed him most of all. Quietly moving, Japin's novel is a powerful study of displacement and disillusionment. Kristine Huntley
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