to the Cannibals
By Richard Bausch
HarperCollins, 656 pages, $27.95
Richard Bausch’s wonderful new novel, Hello to the Cannibals,
showcases his exceptional grasp of the feminine. It links
the lives of Lily Austin, an insecure, gifted mother and playwright
of the late 20th century, and her subject and role model,
the brave 19th-century explorer Mary Kingsley. Austin is a
fiction; Kingsley a historical figure, the first woman to
explore West Africa. Bausch twines them so well, you wish
you could see a performance of Austin’s play, also called
Hello to the Cannibals. Austin draws inspiration for
her play by writing to Kingsley as if the latter were still
I would like to have some of that bravery now. I’m not going
to wild places, but I have a child with me, and the intricacy
of another person, the responsibility of another person, of
that other life in the world whose being is from my body and
blood—well, that is a wilderness, too. Going out into the
world, and making your way amidst the thickets of expectation
and definition—that’s an exploration, too, isn’t it?
At the dawn of the 1990s, Austin is living with her in-laws
and trying to write about Kingsley, who is the very definition
of intrepidness and individualism. Austin views the explorer
as a compass, moral and otherwise. Kingsley’s fearlessness
and singularity appeal to the young woman, who is struggling
to make a living, scratch family itches, and find love.
Austin’s marriage to the damaged, selfish Tyler Harrison amounts
to zero, so she leaves the Virginia home where she and Harrison
have been living with his extended and troubled family, finally
settling in New Orleans to create her own family circle. Like
Kingsley, Austin is middle-class and courageous. Unlike Kingsley,
who skirted love but never succumbed to it, Austin is deeply
domestic. The emotional territory the two women share is what
Bausch skillfully explores.
An old-fashioned novel with a modern sensibility, Hello
to the Cannibals is extraordinarily complicated, like
a watch telling time courtesy of highly sophisticated movements.
Not only does it involve parallel narratives, it revolves
around a play and features numerous letters between the players.
Geography, too, is key. Here’s Kingsley’s first view of Africa,
in an exchange between her and a shipmate as their boat approaches
You won’t frighten me, says Mary. You can’t. I’ve seen death.
I wasn’t trying to frighten ye, mum. There’s large areas of
this coastline that carry rottenness on the wind. Swamps,
stagnant water, dead masses of fish, and fowl, and every other
thing that can die and leave the stink of itself behind; bogs
made of nothing but the slime of dead animals decaying with
such speed that the only thing they do leave is their stench
because there ain’t enough time for the scavengers to eat
it. And it all travels on the air. Mal-aria. Bad air, ye see?
That’s where the word comes from.
While Hello to the Cannibals scrambles fiction, fact,
gender and geography, its scaffolding is sturdy, its story
always accelerating. By the time Austin finally realizes herself—always
self-conscious, she is too rarely self-confident—there is
much of her to care about. By the time Kingsley dies of typhoid
fever in 1900, at 38, there is much to grieve for.
Rarely does a novel about friendship cross cultures and periods
so artfully and movingly.