Two Reviews of BORDERLINES by Michela Wrong

The Fiction and Human Rights Network Blog

Posted by: Kathleen Clarke; Fitsum Goitom, 24 January 2016


BORDERLINES by Michela Wrong  (Fourth Estate, London, 2015):

Two Reviews

Oxford resident Kathleen Clarke, born in Zambia, who has a lifelong interest in fiction about Africa, and Fitsum Goitom, originally from Eritrea,  give their perspectives on this novel which explores border arbitration in fictional countries known as Darrar and North Darrar and is inspired by the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, but the border was disputed and war ensued, 1998-2000. Arbitration was finally made by a UN body in 2002 but the settlement was rejected by Ethiopia and relations between the two countries remain fragile.

Kathleen writes:

The novel opens with the narrator woken from her reverie in an aircraft by the landing, a ‘sobering exercise in shattered assumptions’. Then follows a few pages of activity at a foreign airport where the narrator is under guard and unsure of what is happening, just as the reader is, but in a few short chapters more the reader is on board.  The setting is Lira, in a country called North Darrar, the main characters are introduced and the background to their work in Lira established. It is cogently written and with a journalist’s eye for relevant detail. You are eager to read on and find out about the assumptions of the narrator, Paula Shackleton, and whether they are to be shattered.

Paula is a British lawyer, tempted away from her posting with a Chicago law firm by the high-minded but personable Winston Peabody III, to work with him on a border dispute that North Darrar has with its more powerful and much larger southern neighbour, Darrar.

North Darrar is taken to be Eritrea, and its southern neighbour Ethiopia. The novel centres on the work of Paula and Winston as they prepare their case for international arbitration at The Hague: there are endless documents, and maps, to be examined, Memorials to be prepared, and the final, tense presentation to the tribunal. It is an absorbing insight into the process of international arbitration. Then, of course, there are the relationships, with work colleagues, embassy officials, refugees, IDPs, and there is romance. . .

The narrative touches on a number of issues that are raised about Western intervention in Africa, the idealism of the young doctor who comes out to work in the refugee camp, the pragmatism of the American Embassy officials which Peabody describes deftly as ‘equal opportunity schmoozing’, and in the end a ‘system of universal justice hammered out in Washington, Paris and London’, and on disputes that are ‘rooted in the deep scars left by your [Western] wars’.

There are beautifully written descriptive passages that convey a strong sense of place and identity, and Wrong uses a range of techniques that add variety and authenticity to the text. Paula’s back story is in italics, and there are journal entries of a British colonial officer, and letters. Maps figure largely in the story, but maps of lands, and indeed maps for life, can be, as Peabody says, ‘little more than explorers’ imaginings’. This book is a good read, well-written, informative and a page turner to the end.



Fitsum writes:

Michela Wrong is an award-winning international journalist who has reported events and written three non- fiction books on Africa. Her first book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz (2001), which is awarded the PEN Prize for non-fiction,, tells the transfer of leadership from Mobutu to Kabila. This is followed by I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation(2005), which covers the existence of Eritrea under Italian, British, American and Ethiopian occupations. It’s Our Turn to Eat(2009) is her latest non-fiction work, which focuses on the story of Kenya's 'Whistle-blower' and journalist, John Githongo, uncovering the widespread of corruption in the country.

Borderlines (2015) is her first novel – a work focusing the plot on a legal thriller. The story is narrated by a young British lawyer, Paula Shackleton, who is hired by an international American legal expert, Winston Peabody III, to assist in representing a fictional African nation, North Darrar. North Darrar is in a border dispute with its neighbour, Darrar, compelling the state to declare a state of emergency following international armed conflict.

In Borderlines, Michela Wrong takes the reader on a journey by vividly depicting the legal drama that unfolds at an international level whilst at the same time raising the concerns (and the situation) of the North Darrarian at a national level. Michela’s skill lies in her knowledge of the places she describes and her detailed portrayal of the lives of the locals and their stories which brings this fictional tale to life for anyone who is familiar with Eritrea (North Darrar in disguise). It uncovers the Darrar's deception of courtroom politics in the Hague as it struggles to grow without access to trading coast.

This is also followed by the refusal to comply with the 'final and binding' ruling of the court which is served (or aimed) to bring permanent and lasting solutions for the two nations. The story symbolizes the unresolved border conflicts that cause human sufferings and displacement throughout the continent, which its genesis can be traced from the epoch or era of colonization. Moreover, unsettled borders disputes have been used as a manipulation tool to get access to the sea, maintain political power and gain dominance in the region.

The book also demonstrates the impact of politics, diplomacy, interest, and power in shaping and influencing justice and legal proceedings and their outcome and implementation. For this reason, North Darrar has remained in a prolonged state of emergency and tight security supervision to defend its sovereignty as the threat still prevails. This results in the dissolving of the National Assembly, suspension of the ratified Constitution from being implemented, and the restriction of basic human rights and freedoms in order to regain full control over its territories.

Through this legal thriller novel, the writer addresses how states and other actors behave in dealing with disputes resolutions, challenges international custom, and examines the 'use of force' and the 'good faith' in abiding international law. The work tests the practicality/ applicability of international justice system and its commitment to protect and promote fundamental human rights and freedoms as stipulated in the UN Charter and subsequent treaties. This is an excellent piece of literary work that could be utilized for academic discourse in the field of literature focusing on international justice and human rights.

Fitsum Goitom, originally from Eritrea, completed a Master of Law with Distinction at LSBU. He studied International Law and Human Rights, International Refugee Law, International Humanitarian Law and Contemporary Issues in Development.

Kathleen Clarke

Fitsum Goitum


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