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.