Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: O Africa!: A Novel by Andrew Lewis Conn

O, Africa!: A NovelO, Africa!: A Novel by Andrew Lewis Conn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andrew Lewis Conn’s “O Africa! A Novel,” to be released on June 10, 2014, is an unusual book, by turns fascinating and frustrating. Marketed as a rollicking comic adventure, it veers from slapstick humor to deep tragedy. At times, this seemed a book uncertain of its own identity.

Twin movie-making brothers Micah and Izzy Grand are masters of silent era comedies at a time when “talkie” movies threaten to revolutionize the business. We meet the Brothers Grand in the summer of 1928, filming a typical slapstick comedy on Coney Island. After a rather implausible set of circumstances involving a debt to Harlem gamblers, the brothers and their motley crew of associates embark on a trip to Africa to film several projects, including a silly farce and a serious movie on the history of slavery meant as an answer to the racist “Birth of a Nation.” As Conn writes, “Here they were, a gallery of misfits—a black kid, a Jew fairy, and a circus freak—halfway around the world, pulling levers on the American culture machine.” During their life-changing experiences among an isolated African tribe, Micah and Izzy discover things about themselves, and learn lessons about the power of movies and, most importantly, the power of love.

“O Africa!” is often entertaining and proves oddly moving at its conclusion. Throughout, Conn demonstrates great affection for the era of silent movies, and the novel comes fully alive during scenes about film-making, both as an art form and a business. I especially enjoyed the clever set piece about the first Academy Awards, which even includes an amusing story about the origin of the trophy’s nickname as an “Oscar.”

The plot is absurd, outlandishly so at times. I’m always willing to suspend my disbelief as a reader—up to a point--but this was perhaps too over-the-top. The novel shifts in tone rather abruptly from a madcap romp to a much darker, sometimes even raw and disturbing, tale. This felt disconcerting and left me struggling to understand the author’s ultimate intent. Some characters in this novel are fully drawn, while others seem merely caricature, even cartoonish.

The premise for the novel seemed very intriguing and attractive, but I don’t think this book quite lives up to its promise. Overall, “O Africa!” is an uneven read.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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