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I can’t believe it took me this long to finally read a book by acclaimed Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul! For some uncanny reason his writing has not come on my reading path until now. In a Free State was therefore my first foray into Naipaul’s literary world, and I was pleasantly impressed. His writing is crisp and precise, like a master chef who exerts perfect control over the spices and herbs that he uses to infuse rich flavors into his food. Despite the seemingly simple, fictional narrative – about a road trip made by a British man and woman to a remote (fictional) kingdom in an unnamed Eastern African country in the dying days of colonization – Naipaul manages to paint a intricate portrait of a complex, tumultuous period in African history. An era in which the old colonial relationship between Europeans and Africans is undergoing a drastic shift to which both groups are struggling to adapt. This is illustrated throughout the story in the tense interactions between the (European) protagonist and various African individuals that he encounters during the course of their journey. Oddly, for a European he is subjected, perhaps for the first time, to sexual rejection, thinly veiled threats and even physically assaulted by African soldiers. Yet at the same time there is restraint and grudging deference, on the part of the Africans. They recognize, reluctantly the limits of their new-found, nascent power against their former European colonizers.

What I enjoyed most about In a Free State, was Naipaul’s vivid descriptions of the changing landscape of the hinterland of Africa during the road trip. It brought back fond memories of my time in Rwanda and Kenya. Naipaul captures the pulse of East Africa brilliantly.

What I enjoyed least is hard to put a finger on. Somehow the story lacked a coup de grace. There were no surprising plot twists or dramatic denouements. Moreover, the tone of the narrative is somewhat dispassionate and detached. As a reader I didn’t feel myself in the story, but rather as if I was a passive observer watching it all unfold. In terms of triggers I would warn potential readers that there is some innuendo and overtones in the book which can be found racially offensive. Admittedly, in the colonial period in Africa this would likely have been the norm. Therefore, I would argue that Naipaul’s writing is authentic to the era.

Overall, I would highly recommend In a Free State to anyone looking for a short but intense fictional read about colonialism in Africa.

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