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Into the Wild
By Carlo Wolff

Hello to the Cannibals
By Richard Bausch • HarperCollins, 656 pages, $27.95

Richard Bausch’s wonderful new novel, Hello to the Cannibals, showcases his exceptional grasp of the feminine. It links the lives of Lily Austin, an insecure, gifted mother and playwright of the late 20th century, and her subject and role model, the brave 19th-century explorer Mary Kingsley. Austin is a fiction; Kingsley a historical figure, the first woman to explore West Africa. Bausch twines them so well, you wish you could see a performance of Austin’s play, also called Hello to the Cannibals. Austin draws inspiration for her play by writing to Kingsley as if the latter were still alive:

I would like to have some of that bravery now. I’m not going to wild places, but I have a child with me, and the intricacy of another person, the responsibility of another person, of that other life in the world whose being is from my body and blood—well, that is a wilderness, too. Going out into the world, and making your way amidst the thickets of expectation and definition—that’s an exploration, too, isn’t it?

At the dawn of the 1990s, Austin is living with her in-laws and trying to write about Kingsley, who is the very definition of intrepidness and individualism. Austin views the explorer as a compass, moral and otherwise. Kingsley’s fearlessness and singularity appeal to the young woman, who is struggling to make a living, scratch family itches, and find love.

Austin’s marriage to the damaged, selfish Tyler Harrison amounts to zero, so she leaves the Virginia home where she and Harrison have been living with his extended and troubled family, finally settling in New Orleans to create her own family circle. Like Kingsley, Austin is middle-class and courageous. Unlike Kingsley, who skirted love but never succumbed to it, Austin is deeply domestic. The emotional territory the two women share is what Bausch skillfully explores.

An old-fashioned novel with a modern sensibility, Hello to the Cannibals is extraordinarily complicated, like a watch telling time courtesy of highly sophisticated movements. Not only does it involve parallel narratives, it revolves around a play and features numerous letters between the players. Geography, too, is key. Here’s Kingsley’s first view of Africa, in an exchange between her and a shipmate as their boat approaches its coast:

You won’t frighten me, says Mary. You can’t. I’ve seen death.

I wasn’t trying to frighten ye, mum. There’s large areas of this coastline that carry rottenness on the wind. Swamps, stagnant water, dead masses of fish, and fowl, and every other thing that can die and leave the stink of itself behind; bogs made of nothing but the slime of dead animals decaying with such speed that the only thing they do leave is their stench because there ain’t enough time for the scavengers to eat it. And it all travels on the air. Mal-aria. Bad air, ye see? That’s where the word comes from.

While Hello to the Cannibals scrambles fiction, fact, gender and geography, its scaffolding is sturdy, its story always accelerating. By the time Austin finally realizes herself—always self-conscious, she is too rarely self-confident—there is much of her to care about. By the time Kingsley dies of typhoid fever in 1900, at 38, there is much to grieve for.

Rarely does a novel about friendship cross cultures and periods so artfully and movingly.

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