Four years after the London-based events of My Cleaner, Maggie Gee has transported the three main characters from London to Uganda. Trevor, Vanessa Henman’s ex-husband has travelled there to repair the well in his ex-cleaner’s home village. Vanessa has travelled separately but has not told either Tevor or Mary, thinking that she will just get in touch once in situ. As the three mill around their set, there are many almost-but-not-quite-meetings which add a farcical (perhaps even A-Midsummer-Night’s-Dreamish) element as well as an implicit commentary on the state of their relationships.
Vanessa’s trip to Uganda is triggered by an invitation to attend a literary conference. Her delusional self-assurance disappears when mingling with more successful authors and she becomes more far more sympathetic than she ever was in the previous novel. Gee’s pen flows with knowing satiric glee during these scenes in a luxury hotel where authors and critics pontificate on literature.
“One is tempted”, the lecturer continues, “when contextualising the oeuvre of the postcolonial writer per se, to neglect the fundamental importance of positionality in any historiographical act.”
(I’ve haven’t the faintest idea what it means but it made me smile!)
While Vanessa becomes more sympathetic, the reverse is true of Mary Tendo, who, always a force to be reckoned with, becomes utterly insufferable on her home turf! “Shut up, woman”, cries Trevor after one earnipping experience, giving voice to this reader’s sentiments. The always likeable Trevor, henpecked ex-husband in My Cleaner becomes the henpecked volunteer in My Driver … until Vanessa’s post-conference trip to visit the mountain gorillas transforms him into a modern-day Tarzan.
Gee presents the many facets of the Ugandan setting: village life, city life, the majesty of the landscape and the wildlife. Political instability and the dangers of civil warfare are never far away. In a pivotal scene
Trevor and a group of camera-hung guests are in a little steamer with a painted tin roof, chugging slowly, peacefully through the water past things he has never seen before … great groups of hippos half-submerged in the water, fitting tightly together like a shiny hippo jigsaw-puzzle, patches of pink round their wrinkly eyes, patches of pink at the backs of their ears ….
Over drinks at the end of their idyllic day, the tourists hear ominous stories. “There’s a darker side to this country” explains the storyteller and it’s one that Gee maximises in sections where an unnamed conscript treks through the country, pondering his unspeakable and unforgiveable acts. If you’ve read My Cleaner, it’s not difficult to identify him. But if you haven’t (and there is no need – My Driver stands on its own two feet), there’s an added mystery to solve.
The Uganda of My Driver is a complex place, delightful yet dangerous, stamping its mark firmly on the story, rendering this novel much darker than its predecessor. So is Gee pondering Uganda’s Heart of Darkness? Returning to the literary conference for a moment:
“We’re just storytellers,” Vanessa reflects in a discussion about Heart of Darkness, “trying to make sense of the world. Maybe Conrad was struggling, too.”
Maggie Gee’s not struggling in presenting the country that has fascinated her since she herself attended a literary conference there. It may not always be pretty but neither is it desperate. There’s hope that wounds can be healed – there’s adventure and atmosphere; the novel fulfilling the promise of the beautifully designed dustjacket.