Masha Hamilton's compelling third novel, The Camel Bookmobile, leaves no room for doubt: Books are essential. Cookbooks, novels, parenting books—they all matter to Fiona "Fi" Sweeney, a librarian from Brooklyn searching for fulfillment atop a book-laden camel in the arid and dangerous bush of Kenya.

Tiny, far-flung villages populated by nomadic tribes, largely forgotten and neglected by the greater population of a more modern Africa, welcome the bookmobile and Fi with a combination of curiosity and wary distrust of Westerners' belief that the rest of the world needs guidance. That division is most evident in the small farming community of Mididima, and it is here that the entire program is put in danger. The bookmobile relies on a stringent policy: If a single book goes missing, the entire village is dropped from the route. When books disappear in Mididima, the village is bitterly divided between those who would prefer the bookmobile never return, and those who are convinced that their people need the wisdom of the outside world to survive.

At the center of the maelstrom are Kanika, a young woman whose future relies upon the contact with the modern world the bookmobile provides, and Taban, a talented artist and outcast who refuses to return his books. When Fi arrives in the village to coax the books from him, she is thrust into Kanika and Taban's drama as well as the more adult dramas of the progressive teacher, Matani, his traditional wife, Jwahir, and her lover, Taban's father, Abayomi.

The Camel Bookmobile vibrates with the life and landscape of Africa, and Hamilton shines when presenting the foreign, and often brutal, traditions of Mididima. She neither condones nor condemns, but profiles daily existence with clear, sparkling prose and a well-executed plot peopled with characters readers can't help but care about deeply. The author's background as a journalist and world-traveler is evident, and her experience combined with her impeccable research into the real-life Kenyan Camel Mobile Library program makes for an enlightening new novel.

Kristy Kiernan is the author of Catching Genius (Berkley).

 

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