he heart of Africa and the human heart blend seamlessly in this deftly crafted first novel by Nicholas Hershenow, published under Putnam's new fiction imprint. The team of Greg Michalson and Frederick Ramey, whose Midas touch tapped first-rate new talent like William Gay, Patricia Henley and Susan Vreeland for MacMurray ∧ Beck publishers, now bring their expertise to BlueHen Books, a forum dedicated to putting gifted new writers into print. The Road Builder is a propitious beginning, a warm and wise epic novel that circles the globe to uncover the truths that lie closest to home.

The African journey of Will and Kate Haslin begins in America with a lark, a harmless smuggling foray into Mexico to unofficially export a little jewelry and a few blankets. The joy ride turns into a kidnapping with a not-unwilling victim, progresses into a marriage that begins as a motel-registry subterfuge, and results in a meeting with the man who will put an indelible stamp on the young couple's life Kate's enigmatic Uncle Pers. A shadowy character on his deathbed, an old man whose life experience is as varied as it is mysterious, Pers is writing his memoirs and claims to have lost his memory of time spent in Central Africa. Pers sends Will and Kate on a mission to the village of Ngemba, ostensibly to reclaim that lost part of his past. "You have no story of your own; I'll give you mine," is Pers' irresistible offer. The story that unfolds delves into the dangerous secret of Pers' past while layer after layer of history, myth and culture envelop the young American couple as they come to terms with their own relationship and their relationship to the exotic world of the African savanna.

This is a contemporary story that weds the past to the present, bringing together romance without sentimentality, social issues without preaching, and above all, a rare gift for storytelling and characterization. Although the book is a debut, it displays the virtuosity of an experienced hand. Having worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire, author Nicholas Hershenow puts the authority of personal experience into this richly detailed novel, but the spark that makes it memorable is his talent for bringing the sights and sounds and the very hearts of his characters to life.

Mary Garrett reads and writes in Middle Tennessee.

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