Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Snow Angel, by Lauren St John

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A moving and realistic story about Kenya's most vulnerable children.

Twelve-year-old Makena lives with her mountain guide father and scientist mother in the Kenyan city of Nairobi. She dreams of one day climbing Mount Kenya. Makena's life is a good one, with sensible and loving parents. Then one day her mother is called away to help her sister, Mary, who is an aid worker in Sierra Leone, a country dealing with a nasty breakout of the deadly Ebola virus. Both of Makena's parents make the trip to help Mary, leaving Makena behind with friends of the family.

Whilst in Sierra Leone, tragedy strikes, and Makena is rendered an orphan. Forced to live with a weakling uncle and his domineering wife, Makena flees. She ends up living in the notorious Mathare slums and makes friends with the plucky Snow, an albino girl who is feared and loathed because of her unusual skin colour. Life in the slums is tough: Makena is always hungry, dirty and close to sickness. Snow, the albino girl, teaches her the wonders of a positive attitude, but this can only take you so far.

The Snow Angel has a plausibly happy ending, with the novel eventually shifting its storyline to the highlands of Scotland, but is nonetheless suffused with a gut wrenching sadness and grief. Middle-class African life, the poverty of the slums and Nairobi's bustling population, all trying to survive and get ahead, are memorably evoked with an almost gritty style of realism. Here the streets teem with disease, poverty, child exploitation, malnutrition, crime, political corruption, venality and general hardship. It's a world where few can be trusted and everyone is out for themselves. Yet in this realistically portrayed story St John leaves the reader just the smallest glimmer of hope that things will get better for Makena, and they ultimately do, although the child's grief is something that will never be forgotten.

A gentle and heartfelt window onto the terrible hardships of Kenya's poorest and most vulnerable.

The Snow Angel, by Lauren St John. Published by Head of Zeus. ISBN: 9781786695895. RRP: $19.99 

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