This is a novel about Lily Austin, a contemporary woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, and real-life 19th-century explorer Mary Kingsley, with whom Lily forges a spiritual connection across time. Africa is Mary’s uncharted territory; Mary is Lily’s.
After years as a Victorian spinster, Mary Kingsley ventured into the heart of Africa, defying gender stereotypes and many other biases of her time through her efforts to understand African tribes on their own terms. Lily, the victim of an early episode of sexual abuse and her parents’ divorce, spends her college years in numb isolation. Love at first sight changes her, and before she knows it, she’s a pregnant, married college dropout. But she’s also an explorer, for “another human soul is also a wilderness, and the exploration of that requires courage.” By writing a play about Kingsley’s unconventional life, Lily discovers her own intellectual freedom and emotional bravery.
Bausch—an award-winning novelist and short-story writer who teaches at George Mason University—has a formidable gift for descriptive prose, and his passages about New Orleans and West Africa are startlingly vivid. Unfortunately, he concentrates much of his energy on Lily’s sexuality at the expense of her personality. Every time the novel’s focus shifted to Lily, I knew I was sentences away from a description of her naked body or something even more colorful. Her soul remained a blank.
Hello to the Cannibals would have been compelling if the characters had more dimensions and if Lily faced an obstacle more remarkable than her hormonally addled brain.