Book review: The Dark Child, by Camara Laye

June 24, 2023

It's not much that I'm into African literature, but this book has a bit of history in my family. When my mother was a young teenager, she got into a car accident and spent some time in the hospital. Her history teacher, who was feared by many students due to her strictness, came to visit her and gave her this book to read. My mother's "true form" is likely that of a black woman. Her connection to black peoples, whether Africans or Caribbeans or Black Americans, is similar to the one I feel towards Asia and more generally Eurasia. It feels like a whole part of her, and it is, despite her being white as can be.

I came across this book in one of these free book boxes that are scattered across my area. I asked my mother if she wanted to read it again, she said no, but I decided at the last minute to take it and read it. I wanted to know what it was about. The author, Camara Laye (appears that in his culture, the family name comes first), is Guinean, was born in the late 1920s and unfortunately died in the 1980s. Although I don't feel much of a connection to Africa, his writing style is quite pleasant, and I had real pleasure reading this book.

It's a big contrast to Wuthering Heights, which I was trying to read because it's my loved one's favourite book, but that I just couldn't deal with. I don't like Emily Brontë's writing style at all, generally am not much into English literature, and the book itself feels like a whole shitshow of abusers. Heathcliff is a goddamn sociopath and Catherine is a perfect example of a hysterical woman. Reminds me of some parts of myself and past behaviours I'd rather not be reminded about. I rarely put a book down and move on to another mid-reading, but I had to, I think. It was a drag. At least thanks Laye. It was a pleasant read.

The book is autobiographical and follows the author's childhood and teenage years in Guinea. He lives in Kouroussa with his parents. His father is a goldsmith and a little black snake is believed to be his genius (probably translates as patron animal?). Periodically he makes trips to a nearby village called Tindican, where his mother is from, and visits his grandma and extended family. Life is simple when you're a kid. As he grows up and gets closer to the moment of circumcision, he and his friends go through an initiation ritual around a folk figure called Kondén Diara, which seems to be a half-human half-lion monster of sorts.

The circumcision scene itself kinda stayed with me though. It's not really detailed and is fairly quick, but my nonexistent penis was painful. For real. Suddenly, after having this little bit of his body removed, and despite being around thirteen to fourteen (if I recall correctly), our narrator is now considered a man. After a while recovering at the healer's place (how many of these circumcisions lead to infection and death?), back to his village, he finds out he's now got a hut just for himself across from his mother's and can no longer sleep with her. He feels good about being a man, but still there is this bittersweetness about it that kinda broke me. Suddenly he's no longer a child, despite still technically being one. He can no longer interact and bond with his mother in the same way he could as a little boy.

He goes to Conakry for his studies at the age of 15, living at an uncle's house, but unfortunately loses one year to a foot infection that lands him in the hospital. One of his childhood friends dies from what I think is a sexually transmitted illness on the second summer break he spends back home in Kouroussa. This, also, pained me. He befriends a girl and the two catch feelings, but never really get into a relationship, although his aunties tease both of them about it. And at the end of the book, he accepts an offer to go study in France, having to leave his heartbroken mother behind. This is a very succinct recap of it, but I don't want to spoil too much.

It's the vibe that I like about this book. The simplicity of it. The slight spiritual and folk undertones to it, which made me learn a bit about Guinea, even though it's not a country I feel particularly called to visit. This guy sounded like an interesting fellow to be around by his writing style and the atmosphere he managed to build. I think I'll keep this book in my bookcase.