Hello to the Cannibals: A Novel

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9780060192952: Hello to the Cannibals: A Novel

"My heart stopped peacefully, its beating grew slow and weak, and then just -- stopped. I died young. There is, really, only a little to tell."

And so ended, in 1900, the short but remarkable life of explorer and writer Mary Henrietta Kingsley, most of which was spent caring for her ailing mother, and attending to the business of her world-wandering father. But the moment she was unencumbered, she set out on her own journey of discovery. Blithely ignoring the narrowly circumscribed roles and rules for a young woman of her day, she traveled alone to West Africa, and went to places no European had ever been.

"Oh, silent friend, if you ever come to read this ... I am in Africa. Soon I will be walking inland, heading to places unknown."

It is almost a hundred years later, on her fourteenth birthday, that Lily Austin first hears the name of Mary Kingsley, the only female face in a book full of male adventurers. That night, as an ice storm rages outside, something awful and unexpected befalls Lily; and this is why, as she matures into a young woman, it is to the writings of Kingsley that she returns again and again for solace and comfort -- which she finds, especially, in a secret cache of intimate letters Kingsley wrote to an unnamed woman in the distant future. Lily, the child of professional actors, begins to write a play about Kingsley.

"When they buried me at sea, off the coast of South Africa, the strangest thing happened. My coffin wouldn't sink. It floated away from the ship ... Imagine that. I was still sailing the seas, even in death. I was wandering away."

On the surface, Lily Austin's life could not be more different from Mary Kingsley's. And yet, working on the play, she finds in her subject's wit and resourcefulness the inspiration -- the bravery -- she needs to navigate the complicated waters of intimacy and betrayal, kindness and love.

A triumph of the imagination, Hello to the Cannibals is Richard Bausch's most dazzling and beautifully crafted novel to date.

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Review:

Two women. Two centuries. One novel. It's an almost unthinkable challenge, but one that Richard Bausch ( In the Night Season, Someone to Watch Over Me), commits to fully in Hello to the Cannibals. Bausch imagines a time-defying friendship emerging between Mary Kingsley, the famous Victorian explorer, and Lily Austin, a college dropout in the late 1980s who shows signs of having a promising future as a playwright. How these two women are connected, whether through stifling domestic circumstances, thwarted affections, or sheer determination, remains questionable throughout this huge novel, but it's fun to suppose, in any case. Mary, an autodidact who began a love affair with the West Coast of Africa near the end of her short life, was sentenced to a life of spinsterhood and servitude inside her own family. Lily, by contrast, is a modern woman whose hasty young marriage results in her living with her husband's estranged and whiskey-soaked family. Both heroines write their deepest fears and hopes in letter form, thus writing to and answering each other. But Bausch, in dealing with a real person's life in fictional form in contrast to an entirely fictional creation, further loads Mary Kingsley's story with a richer authenticity. Blending historical fiction and contemporary fiction would be considered an act of literary daring in lesser hands; it's a very good thing, then, that Bausch's writing is timeless, bold, and genuine throughout. --Emily Russin

About the Author:

Richard Bausch is the author of nine other novels and seven volumes of short stories. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Playboy, GQ, Harper's Magazine, and other publications, and has been featured in numerous best-of collections, including the O. Henry Awards' Best American Short Stories and New Stories from the South. In 2004 he won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story.

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