Peter Dickinson is a British mystery writer whose literate, sardonic, intricately plotted novels are a cut above most works in the genre. In TEFUGA, there are none of the trappings of the conventional mystery, though there is a crucial enigma that is resolved only at the book’s conclusion.
The action begins in the 1980’s. Well-known British television personality Nigel Jackland has come to Nigeria to make a docu-drama based on his parents’ experience there in the 1920’s; the project was inspired by his discovery of a diary kept by his mother, Betty. This provides the premise for the book’s unusual structure: Chapters recounting the filming in present-day Nigeria alternate with longer chapters consisting of passages from the diary.
Betty Jackland is the heart of the novel. A naive, inexperienced young woman, she nevertheless comes to Africa with an artist’s eye (she is a gifted painter) and an independent spirit. Her diary--in which Dickinson deftly re-creates the idiom of the 1920’s-- witnesses to the oppressive legacy of colonialism, but it also reveals her growing awareness of another oppressive system: As a victim of patriarchy, she has much in common with her African sisters.
Dickinson’s treatment of these themes is nuanced, evenhanded, and often comic; he is no propagandist. There is, however, one serious weakness in the novel. Large chunks of Betty’s diary are given to exposition of tribal history and other background material. These sections are both implausible-- hardly the stuff of diaries--and confusing, with a welter of African names and family relationships to be sorted out.
Nevertheless, the appeal of Betty Jackland’s voice and the lure of the central mystery--what happened at Tefuga Hill to bring the Jacklands’ time in Africa to a tragic conclusion-- should be sufficient to keep most readers interested to the last page.