The lush descriptions of Africa are lovely, and the story absorbing and thoughtful, with more than one twist in the tail. Read more
Set on a luxury game farm in the Kalahari, Shireen Jilla’s The Art of Unpacking Your Life is an entertaining, although at times flawed novel type of read about a group of old university friends from England celebrating a birthday.
The birthday is that of forty-year-old Connie, who has been responsible for bring them all to South Africa. It’s set on Gau, a fictional lodge, but one that closely resembles those in real life, lending an authenticity to this novel. The story opens as the group arrive on the reserve, with a “sociable weaver bird nest splayed across the acacia thorn tree like an ancient, sun-damaged headdress”.
Jilla’s writing is evocative and descriptive, bringing the sun-baked yet mysterious Kalahari desert alive through the story, from descriptions of the typically thatch lodge to the burning sands, to the wild animals who survive there.
At first it’s a little hard keeping track of the characters, but each soon emerges in their own right as strongly well-developed individuals. There’s Connie’s philandering politician husband, Julian, devoted to her, certainly, but with each infidelity he wounds her further, although she’s long got used to it, or so she thinks. There’s Sara, an ambitious single barrister who’s come away on this trip harbouring a guilty secret about her latest case. Lizzie bemoans the path her life has taken – no man, and a low-end job in which she’s failed to advance.
There’s sensitive Luke – newly divorced – and an old flame of barrister Sara, and Matt, having a surrogate baby with his new wife, which he confesses soon after they all arrive. Daniel wants to settle by buying land, but his partner Alan is less sure about that, which highlights a crack in their relationship.
And then there’s Gus, the game ranger, who will add further spice to the mix with his own blend of romantic allure.
The story of their individual dramas and a series of revelations plays out against the backdrop of the days at the lodge, the game drives, a night spent in the dessert for “the girls” of the group, and the sightings of the animals, which lends further excitement and tension to the story. This is what I like to call a “travel novel” in which the action is set against a place foreign to the protagonists, in which place is both character and mover of the action as that of the characters. And Jilla writes well about the African bush, bringing it to vivid real life.
At times the plot development becomes a little too obvious, a tad trite, but by then you’re so well engrossed in the story that you barely notice. This is a well-written, entertaining read about the choices we make in our lives, and the hope that can undo those decisions we thought were written in stone.
Amy Steele: How did you get the idea for this novel?
Shireen Jilla: I was like a schizophrenic for years, muttering to the main characters, who wouldn’t leave my mind.
I wanted to write about a generation that didn’t all end up married with 2.4 children. By 40, some are single, divorced, gay, with children, without. To me, it is no longer clear cut.
Amy Steele: It’s your second novel. What did you do differently in writing this one than the first?
Shireen Jilla: My last novel, Exiled, was a psychological thriller set in New York. Like Rosemary’s Baby. So the plot came first. It was the very immediate story of one woman, so I decided to write it in the first person.
With Unpacking, my starting point was altogether different. I had been thinking about the six main characters for a long time. I was equally interested in each of their stories. So I eventually decided to use a ‘roving’ third person perspective inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
Amy Steele: How does your work as a journalist affect your novel writing?
Shireen Jilla: It makes it easier and harder. I am used to settling down to write, but a 1,00-word newspaper feature with a clear beginning, middle and end, is ver different from facing the mountain of 100,000 words of fiction. Once I had worked out what I wanted to do with Unpacking, I wrote it very fast.
The first draft was completed in five months. I spent six weekends working from Friday through to Monday, practically without sleeping.
I am not precious about getting the scenes down and I don’t prevaricate. I think that’s because I am also a journalist.
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to set this in the Kalahari? How did you recreate the settings?
Shireen Jilla: I tried setting it in Sardinia, but it wasn’t a remote or extreme enough to allow the characters to unravel in such a short space of time. When my brother took me on this trip of a lifetime to the Kalahari, my first ever to Africa, I realised it was the perfect setting.
I kept a diary, took hundreds of photos, some of which are on my website, bought books, and talked extensively to the guides. All the detail is accurate.
Amy Steele: As they seem to be the main characters, what do you like best about Connie, about Luke and about Sara?
Shireen Jilla: I am incredibly fond of all the characters in the book. I admire Connie’s strength, love her doubt. I was drawn to Luke because of his unspoken vulnerability. And Sara is highly intelligent and funny, but ultimately a loyal friend.
Amy Steele: Why did you pick three guys, three women?
Shireen Jilla: I wanted Unpacking to be about a group of friends, close but disparate. And I wanted it to be written from a male and female point of view. Both reasons led me to have six main characters. In a literary sense, six main characters is considered a handful. And the editor at my literary agency encouraged me to reduce them.
Amy Steele: Are you still close friends with college friends? Would you take a safari trip together?
Shireen Jilla: Yes! I would love to do it.
Amy Steele: What do like best about writing novels?
Shireen Jilla: I love the actual process. It’s probably escapism. Still, I am never happier than when I am in the middle of writing a novel.
Read more on Amy Steele’s website