Conjuring Maud by Philip Danze
(Grey Core, $23.00, G) ISBN 0-9671851-3-0
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Conjuring Maud is the tale of a love triangle between a man, the woman he loves, and the Africa that will not let her go - a land of such fearsome beauty and truth that it irrevocably changes those brave enough to fathom it. Anyone who has ever been possessed by the soul of a particular place - or haunted by an intangible, unattainable dream - will find this book a gripping ode to the experience.

The son of a runaway mother and an embittered miner who dreams of his past wealth and social standing, David Unger is all too eager to leave home in Johannesburg for naval academy. One day, while out on a routine mail pickup, he meets Maud King, ethnologist-cum-trader, an impoverished English aristocrat who inherited from her father an undying passion for the Africa wilds. Intrigued by her aura of melancholy, he offers to deliver her mail while she is on expedition.

As Maud and David explore and catalogue the wonders of the African jungle, the joys and dangers they experience draw them into a profound intimacy. However, though deeply in love, David eventually must return to his normal life. Drafted to fight with British forces against the Zulu Rebellion, his path takes him from battlefield to prison, farther and farther from Maudís own wandering course.

When fate unites them again, both have undergone profound changes. Maud is a celebrated explorer, her presence sought at lecture halls across Britain; David is studying in London for his medical degree. Yet their love remains unshaken, if not stronger than before. But between them and future happiness lies the shadow of an insurmountable obstacle: the continent of Africa, luring Maud back to what will be the deciding moment of their love and their livesÖ

Danzeís descriptions of Africa read like love poems, evoking the green shaded depths of the jungle in sensual, adoring prose, making its presence tangibly manifest. The most vivid and well-developed character in the book, the land of Africa possesses and devours Maud, occupying the bulk of her energy and thoughts, rendering her true self - if there is one apart from it - as curiously distant to the reader as she is to her beloved. While this strips the tale of sentimental power, making it difficult to sympathize with Davidís burning passion for her, it also effectively underlines the frailty of human relationships in the face of a force so vast and mysterious.

In turn, Davidís lot is to learn to accept and fathom the mysterious, whether it be human madness, his friend Gandhiís transcendence of the limitations of consciousness, a witchdoctorís malevolent practices or the art of a circus magician. Davidís progress from the single-minded lover to the unquestioning negotiator of sometimes frightening wonders is a gradual and intriguing journey. Ultimately, it is also what brings him his only enduring desire - permanent possession of Maud - though in a way he never would have been able to accept as a young man.

However, the fundamental message of this novel may be the vital role played by dreams and obsessions. Maud tells her lover that she wants to be free - not from Africa, but from being a woman. That both are equally impossible, just as it is impossible for David to be freed of his love for Maud, or Gandhi to be released from his vision of a liberated India, is not, in the end, a cause for fatalistic despair. Sorrow is the soulís lifeblood, as one character points out, so to yearn for release - or the alternative solution, total union - is in fact a spiritual quest. That it is largely an ascetic one may disappoint seekers of more conventional romance, but for lovers of Africa in particular it is a journey worth taking.

--Margaret Shelley


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