Books don't often shock me. I read so much that I seem to be in tune with the narrative flow, I see plot twists coming from miles away, and I'm good at spotting foreshadowing. However, in his second novel, Mackenzie Ford has created a story of such surprising richness that I closed it on the last page, then promptly began thinking if the surprises were fair, if they had been foreshadowed. I had to conclude that I had fair warning of the plot developments all the way through, which makes The Clouds Beneath the Sun all the more extraordinary. In fact, some events were foreshadowed, but I discounted them as impossible to pull off in a realistic fashion. How delighted I was to have been mistaken.
The book opens with Natalie Nelson taking her newly minted Cambridge Ph.D and broken heart to her first dig, in Kenya. Ford (a nom de plume for historian Peter Watson) eases us into the setting with Natalie passing elephants involved in a mourning ritual on the way to the remote camp. I actually had trouble getting into the book at first. An archaeological dig in 1961 Kenya is not an easy setting to evoke, and the "Attention: You Are Now In the 1960s!" details did not feel as effortlessly part of the story as the history and political climate of Kenya. (Examples: that newfangled birth control pill, friends of Natalie's who (gasp) live with men instead of marrying, Natalie's parents utter shock at her disastrous affair with a married man, the publication of Lolita, talk of men going to the moon.) And Natalie's mooning about Dom, her lover, is a bit overdone. However, once I'd made it through the set-up, I could not put this book down. Ford's Kenya is beautiful, vibrant, and complex, so well-drawn that I had no difficulty visualizing it. He lays out the political climate neatly. The moral complexity of the story means that I'm still thinking about the implications.
As Natalie and the others on the dig begin to make extraordinary discoveries in the gorge, she develops relationships with her colleagues. Eleanor, the widow of a celebrated paleontologist, wants to take Natalie under her wing, forcing a confidence that Natalie isn't sure she wants. Eleanor's two sons, Jack and Christopher, vie for her attention, as does Russell, an Australian on the dig. When Richard Sutton, Jr. is found murdered after he and Russell commit an unforgivable act against the Maasai, Natalie is thrust into the center of a political minefield, as the only witness who can implicate one of the Maasai. The tensions between the Maasai and the colonial paleontologists, between blacks and whites (some want a system of apartheid for Kenya, while other groups seek an integrated society, and still others want all the whites ejected), between English law and tribal custom, are absolutely riveting. Jack, having grown up in Africa, is an honorary Maasai, so his insights are invaluable. These are not easy questions posed by Ford, and he doesn't offer easy answers. The pressure on Natalie to refuse to testify in order to diffuse the political situation is not unwarranted, and she herself wavers between doing what is morally right to her, and doing what may be politically and culturally appropriate.
This is a morally complex novel that evokes a realistic picture of 1961 Kenya, of a country divided by race on the brink of independence, and of an impossible choice. I highly recommend it.
FTC Source Disclosure: I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.