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Undiscovered Country
Christina Koning

Undiscovered Country
Christina Koning
London 1998

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After the end of the Second World War, an expatriate community is formed in Venezuela. Made up of English, American and Dutch oil workers and their families, this ‘privileged minority’ combat homesickness, isolation and memories of war through a frenetically hedonistic lifestyle. The endless round of parties, gossip and extra-marital affairs is haunted by largely unspoken horrors; combat, bereavement, deprivation, and of course, the Holocaust. This is a world that seems very little like reality to the adults who live in it, and is the only reality for their children, too young to remember the war, for whom this brightly coloured, arid wasteland has been their first home.

At the centre of Christina Koning’s novel is a young English war widow, Vivienne, her new American husband and her eleven year old daughter from her first marriage. Their ultimately tragic entanglement with a neighbouring Dutch family forms the main thread of the narrative and Koning sensitively portrays the disparity between the innocence of a child’s perception of events and the darker world inhabited by the novel’s adult protagonists. Against the backdrop of an alien landscape, a dying relationship and a new passion are played out, a community is shattered by mental illness and an ‘undiscovered country’ ravaged by the ruthless capitalism of the oil companies. Whilst Koning’s novel constructs itself around a group of disparate and damaged individuals, it has a wider social and historical agenda, raising issues about post-imperial colonialism and exploring with insight the precarious position of the ‘survivor’ after an event like World War Two.

Koning’s novel is self-consciously writerly, employing what has become a stock device of the literary novel by writing the entire narrative in the present tense. Whilst her prose is accomplished and beautifully descriptive, this mode of writing serves to make the narrative seem tentative and elusive, as if the author lacks the confidence to commit her tale to history by writing it into the past. The structure of the novel, with its glimpses into some unspecified future, makes it clear that the events of the book are being written from the standpoint of memory. Whose memories it is that we are reading is less clear, as no one character in the novel can lay claim to the title of main protagonist or even to being the novel’s primary focal point. The narrative stance shifts between characters, writing each of their actions, thought and emotions into the same oddly bland present. There is little here for the reader to fix upon or engage with and thus reading Undiscovered Country becomes a passive experience rather than an active engagement with the text. It is rather like watching a very beautiful film in which character and plot development have been overlooked in favour of stunning cinematography.

The author of Undiscovered Country grew up in Venezuela and Jamaica and the first hand experience of expatriate life and of gaudy heat of the Tropics lends her novel a freshness and ‘authenticity’ that gives life to her meticulously descriptive prose. The story itself is initially intriguing but frustratingly underdeveloped. Christina Koning is undoubtedly a talented author and there is much to be admired in Undiscovered Country. Unfortunately, however, this book often seems less like a novel than an overlong exercise in creative writing.

Reviewed by Polly Rance


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