Reviewed by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98)
It is March 1988 and Fiona Garvey, 22, of Omaha, Nebraska, has just received her letter of acceptance into the Peace Corps. Fiona is a tall, lithe, recent college graduate and ballet dancer, who is anxious to run away from home – and from a failed romance — to seek “true adventure, with soul.” So she gladly accepts the challenge of teaching English as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years in the tiny, equatorial country of Gabon, Central Africa.
Thus begins Terez Mertes Rose’s newly published novel, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, which perfectly evokes the Gabon she and I knew when we both served as PCVs (at different times, at different ages, in different towns, and in different programs) there. Along with the protagonist Fiona, readers of this richly detailed novel feel the heat, swat the bugs, dream Mefloquine dreams, struggle with the cultural differences, face the dangers, take the falls, rise to the occasions, and strive to replicate Thanksgiving dinners – right down to Green Papaya (“tastes like pumpkin!”) Pie – in a country where few of the necessary ingredients can be found.
This is a coming-into-her-own novel, the story of a young woman (told in the first person) who yearns for both romance and purpose and who is willing to take big risks to find both.
Initially, Fiona falls hard for Christophe, a handsome, charming Peace Corps teacher-trainer, the son of Gabon’s Minister of Tourism, who floats, teasingly, in and out of her life. Ultimately, though, (spoiler alert!) she finds true love and a new direction with a good guy named William, as we readers breathe a sigh of relief.
Throughout, Rose uses Fiona’s love of dance as the driving metaphor for her novel. Again and again, in the beginning of her two-year service, Fiona refuses to partake in the dancing at village gatherings. “I don’t dance African,” she insists, stubbornly sticking only to her beloved ballet (which she dances privately, alone in her own home).
In time, though, of course, Africa teaches her to bend in new ways. She learns to dance a new (to her) kind of dance. As Rose describes it in her lovely, evocative prose:
Time ceased its relevancy. I kept going. So did the drums. I began to think of one particular drummer as my drummer – an aging man with a shock of fuzzy hair and alert eyes. His hands moved so fast, they were a blur. I found, however, when I moved in synchrony to his hands, my steps became effortless. It was as if I’d been lifted off my feet, marionette-style, and all I had to do was give in to the experience. The drum had a curious counter-rhythm, a high, popping sound. I could pick up every nuance of the music, could even feel the drummer’s hand slapping the drum, and hear the taut skin’s reply. The drummer looked up at one point and smiled at me, an expression of fiery glee. We exchanged grins, a conspiracy between two performers who understood that once you got inside the music, anything was possible.
Every young woman who has ever considered, or is still considering, joining the Peace Corps and serving somewhere on the vast, mysterious continent of Africa – or is looking for “adventure with soul” in any form, anywhere — would be wise to read Terez Mertes Rose’s rich and sensuous new novel, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. And every older woman who has served in the Peace Corps in Africa will enjoy taking this magic carpet ride back there as well.
At the end of their Peace Corps service, Fiona asks William, “How do you leave Africa? How do you get on a plane and just fly out of here, knowing you’ll never come back?”
“Maybe, deep inside,” William responds, “you don’t ever completely leave. Or maybe it’s that Africa never completely leaves you.”
“I think you’re right,” Fiona says to him.
I think they’re both right.
Bonnie Lee Black’s memoir, How To Cook A Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010) recounts her experience as a health and nutrition volunteer in Lastoursville, Gabon, from 1996 to 1998. This book won a Best in the World award from Gourmand International in Paris, France, in 2012. Black’s newest book is the novel Jamie’s Muse (Nighthawk Press, 2018).