Why we love it: Congo Dawn is an emotionally powerful and richly evocative novel from one of Australia’s best-loved writers. African-born Katherine Scholes transports us from 1960s Melbourne to the jungles of Africa in this epic story of one young woman’s adventure-filled quest to find her heritage.
Anna Emerson is a 21-year-old secretary, fresh from jilting her fiancé, when life takes a dramatic twist. A stranger approaches her on a Melbourne street and summons Anna to her estranged father’s deathbed in the land of her birth, the war-torn Congo. Against her mother’s anguished pleas to stay in Australia and despite the dangers, Anna determines to uncover the mystery surrounding her early years. On arrival in the Congo she meets a wealthy and beautiful older woman Eliza and quickly discovers that the country – and her father – are in a much worse state than she imagined. The Congo might be fresh from independence from its cruel Belgian masters, but it’s still being ravaged and plundered, as communist and Western nations fight it out for domination of the resources-rich nation.
Over in neighbouring Tanzania, safari guide Dan Miller can’t resist the call to arms and ventures to his old country to head up a commando unit fighting the communist-backed rebels, the Simbas. As Dan, a broken man with a keen intelligence and a compassion that belies his status as commando leader, returns to the Congo, any illusion or ideals about fighting a worthy cause are quashed as he and his mercenaries encounter chaos and destruction in a country increasingly out-of-control.
As Anna finds herself marooned on a Christian mission with the rebels closing in, her life is soon in grave danger. In this country, where the fetid jungle eats everything in its path, she realises that life can’t be measured in ways she was used to in Melbourne. Atrocities have been committed against the ordinary Congolese for years by their Belgian colonisers; now many want revenge, and even well-meaning Christian missionaries working on leper colonies are not immune. Scholes skilfully portrays her characters’ dilemmas in the face of these problems and the lives of Anna, Dan, and Eliza eventually converge in a compelling and poignant story of love and redemption.
Congo Dawn is an utterly compelling and absorbing read, with characters that you fall for and feel for. The breadth of the story, as we’re drawn into the heart of the Congolese jungle, is sweeping while Scholes’ vivid prose and in-depth knowledge of the problems faced by this rich-yet-poor, post-colonial nation convey the reader to another world entirely. Through the emotional stories of her characters, she brilliantly interweaves the intensely personally against the backdrop of a nation’s ongoing tragedy and terrible political turmoil. It’s a heartrending reminder that when ideologies go to war it’s the ordinary people who suffer most and even the well-intentioned can be be misled or find themselves on the wrong side.
This is a book where the the tension builds steadily from the outset leading to an intensely powerful conclusion. Congo Dawn is one to savour, a wonderful holiday read or one to cosy up with as the autumn days get shorter.
Katherine Scholes is the author of international bestsellers including The Rain Queen, Make Me An Idol, The Stone Angel, The Hunter’s Wife, The Lioness and The Perfect Wife. She is hugely popular in Europe where she has sold over two million books. Her novel The Blue Chameleon won a New South Wales State Literary Award and The Stone Angel was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Awards. Katherine was born in Tanzania, the daughter of a missionary doctor and an artist. When she was ten the family left Tanzania, going first to England, then migrating to Australia. She now lives in Tasmania and makes regular trips back to Africa where many of her books are set.