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On Shame by Melanie Finn

Extracts, Fiction

Amy Davies - March 12th, 2015

Shame coverToday we publish Shame by Melanie Finn.  Here Commissioning Editor, Sophie Buchan introduces this stunning novel, before handing over to Melanie Finn who reveals one of the inspirations behind it.

We read to travel: to different worlds, to different times, or simply to leave our experience and implant ourselves in other peoples’ minds.

Shame will take you further than most novels. It will take you to the edge of Africa, to a place where fireflies light the sky, and to a desolate coastline where anything, anything, might happen. It will also take you deep inside the mind of one of the most unforgettable characters I am yet to meet.

Pilgrim Jones has done something, something unspeakable, for which she can’t summon enough remorse. Deserted by her husband and shunned by the small community in which she lived, she arrives at an airport, looks up at the departures board and takes the first flight. She alights in a world of deluded philanthropists, mercenaries and witchdoctors in polyester suits.

Shame isn’t a novel that you read then forget; it is a novel that lives with you, its images and dilemmas haunting you at every turn. It is a novel about meaning; how you find that meaning in a new place, far from home, when the norms of your world have collapsed. It speaks to a fundamental human curiosity; who would I be, who could I be, away from my life and everything which came before. Shame will appeal to anyone who has wondered what if.

This novel speaks to everyone differently; some have compared it to Coetzee, some to Lost in Translation. And Mel’s inspirations are equally diverse: one was a Russian plane crash where a grieving father avenged an air traffic controller; another her experience of sewing up a Masaai warrior’s face. Here is Mel on the latter.

A stitch in time

‘In 2007, my husband and I moved to Makat, a tiny Masai village on the eastern shore of remote Lake Natron in Tanzania. We were there to make a film about flamingos, which nest on the lake in vast numbers. To get to Makat you had to drive four hours on a kidney-busting track, which was either dust or mud, depending on the season. Then you had to keep a look out for a rock by a small, crooked tree, for the faintest hint of tyre marks in the long grass, and turn there. It was like tracking a rare animal; you had to get out and check the ground for evidence. Yes, this is the way.

Lake Natron is so saline that in concentrations it will burn skin; dense and oily, it reflects the sky like a mirror, and we filmed those bright pink birds skimming the surface, barely discernible from their own reflections. Anchored at the southern end by the still active volcano, Ol Donyo Lengai, Natron tips due north along the Rift Valley escarpment towards Kenya, where it disappears between two mountains, spilling into space: the end of the world. At night, there were no lights, only paraffin lamps and stars, the glittering stream of the Milky Way, which the Masai call ‘the path to God.’

I had met a few of the local elders, complying with the courtesy of local permission. They were not particularly interested in us and our flamingos; they had very little experience of white people and none of filming, but were happy we had hired a dozen men and women to work in the camp. For the first two weeks we left each other alone.

Then: a Sunday afternoon. Matt and I were napping in our tent. He stepped outside for a pee, ducked back in. ‘There’s a bunch of Masai here. They look serious.’ About a dozen men were standing under an acacia tree. As I speak Swahili, I went out to them; approaching, I saw one was sitting on the ground. He was covered in blood. His cheek was split open from ear to lip like a ripe plumb.

Despite the bloodied man, we took time to exchange formal greetings. How was I, how was my husband? How were they? Their families? Their cows?

‘Mama.’ One of the old men finally got to the point. ‘We need your help.’

I knelt down to the man. I could see his cheekbone through the slit in his flesh. I had taken an 80-hour Wilderness Medicine course a year before, but nothing had prepared me for this kind of trauma. He’d been in a drunken fight, on the receiving end of a simi, the machete-sized knife all Masai men carry. The wound was quite beyond my training.

We loaded him into the back of our Land Rover pick-up and our driver took him to Engaresero, a village on the western side of the lake where there was a small government dispensary. An hour later, the driver radioed me: the nurse had taken one look at the man, locked the dispensary and run away. What should he do now?

I assessed the situation. The man had lost a lot of blood, it was now dark and the hospital was at least five hours away. There were rumours of bandits on the way. I opened the bush medic’s bible, Where There is No Doctor, to the section on suturing. It’s really just sewing with a little fish hook. I poured myself a shot of tequila. ‘Right,’ I said into the radio. ‘Bring him back.’

He was barely conscious.

‘What is his name?’


We laid Nagenda on the kitchen table. I put on my head torch, scrubbed my hands and wrists. And began.

Cleaning a knife wound is not a gentle procedure. Clots and bits of tissue must be removed, the wound fully exposed so that it is absolutely clean. Nagenda drifted in and out of consciousness, and I tried to be most aggressive when he was out. But even when he opened his eyes and looked up at me, he did not flinch. I was so intent on the task I never for a moment thought ‘gross’ or ‘ew’ or ‘I can’t do this.’

I then took out the suture kit from the very bottom of the first aid box, where I’d thought it would stay. Start in the middle, the book said, so I chose a spot on the high arc of Nagenda’s cheekbone.

He was awake, he did not move a muscle. I pushed the needle down and around and up then tied the thread so that the two sides of flesh met with a gentle kiss. And doubled the knot. I did this 13 more times.

When I was done, the elders carried Nagenda into the staff kitchen and gave him some hot, sweet tea and a large bottle of water. He fell asleep beside the hearth. I had another tequila and looked at the stars, the sky and silence that led all the way back to our ancestors.

In the morning, Nagenda was there to greet me. We shook hands, I gave him some antibiotics, and he walked off. The next morning, there were twenty people under the acacia tree, mostly women with children and babies, sniffling, coughing, some with burns or rashes or gooey eyes. Matt chuckled, ‘Melanie Finn, Medicine Woman.’

Over the next two years, I had the privilege of being a medic to the community of Makat. I saved lives, evacuating a young pregnant woman with pre-eclampsia, and another with a very premature baby. I gave a boy his sight back, a $15 surgery for trachoma. I made a lame man walk by treating his spinal TB. I wasn’t a miracle worker, I simply had access to knowledge and resources that these people didn’t – these mothers with sick children, who would surely die without antibiotics, these women who would die in childbirth if they were not evacuated.

As our time in Makat came to a close, I could not bear the imperial power I had of life and death; it was immoral that, without me, this community of friends must return to their previous ‘get better or die’ reality. I contacted Matt’s mum, Penny, a GP in the UK with extensive experience in rural public health in Nepal and India. She came out to visit, and at the kitchen table where I’d sewn Nagenda’s face back together, we founded The Natron Healthcare Project. We still run this with quiet and variable success.’

For more information, please visit our website at http://www.natronhealthcare.org

Shame is out now in hardback, ebook and audio download.  Start reading it now.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 12th, 2015 at 11:16 am and is filed under Extracts, Fiction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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