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by Maggie Gee
Reviewed by Amanda Meale

A comedy set against the backdrop of war might not seem viable, but Maggie Gee makes it work.

Vanessa Henman, a somewhat neurotic and narcissistic writer, flies from England to Uganda to attend a writers' conference. Vanessa hopes to meet up with her son's former nanny, Mary Tendo. And here the vaudeville begins: Mary now works at the Sheraton, the very hotel where Vanessa is staying. Furthermore, Mary is expecting Vanessa's ex-husband Trevor, whom she has cajoled into helping with a charitable project, to arrive any day. Neither Vanessa nor Trevor knows that the other will be in Uganda and Mary and Vanessa do not meet — as one walks into a room, the other walks out. Back in England Vanessa and Trevor's son Justin knows nothing of his parents' travels due to a neglected postcard and a mobile phone problem.

The characters are all delightfully flawed. Vanessa's books have received lukewarm reviews and yet she valiantly, and accidentally, manages to find a place among the writers at the conference. Although she never gets anything quite right, Vanessa sees herself through rose-coloured glasses. Vanessa, for some reason, thinks she is giving the opening address but no, that honour has gone to:

"Veronique Tadjo. Wonderful writer as I'm sure you know. From Cote d'Ivoire. A star.

'Ah,' says Vanessa. 'Yes, I see'. (I am a star, she thinks. I could shine.)"

Mary Tendo is a strong, determined woman whose discussions with her husband Charlie are highly amusing. And despite the laconic Trevor explaining that he is merely a plumber, Mary drags him off to her village to build a well. As her uncle speaks of fountains, Mary interrupts:

"'Trafalgar Square! Yes, Trevor built the fountains in Trafalgar Square. Is it true, Trevor?'

'If you say so, Mary.'"

Justin is meanwhile coping with his role of house-husband and father to little Abdul Trevor. Gee makes some droll observations about modern‒day parents and children. During the course of the novel Justin will face a crisis and will have to draw on hitherto unknown strengths in his character.

With the conference over, Vanessa goes off to fulfill her dream — a second reason for visiting Uganda — to see gorillas in the wild. At the same time Trevor has finished in the village and is headed for a resort, would you believe, in the same area as Vanessa's gorilla refuge. They will have a suspenseful reunion, but I'll leave it to the reader to discover how.

Throughout the novel, interspersed between the doings of Vanessa, Trevor, Mary and Justin, are comments on the politics and economy of Uganda. At the forefront is the fighting in Democratic Republic of Congo and the Ugandan army's participation therein. There are current fears that the fighting is now too close to the Ugandan border. Over the years millions have died, and Ugandan boys have been abducted and trained as soldiers. Gee's novel follows one particular boy whose story is heart-wrenching:

"There are ten commandments. He has broken them all. They start to seem useless, like rusted iron. They clank behind him, they groan into the night, the sound of torturing instruments. He has used those too. He is damned forever. He can never go home."

Gee colours every moment of My Driver with her exemplary writing. Her descriptive powers are excellent:

"...mats of floating papyrus grass; a yellow Nile crocodile sprawled snake‒like on the shore, suddenly baring a long serrated smile; the flash of a tiny blue Malachite kingfisher..."

In the end Gee draws all of the different threads of the novel into a satisfying whole. Read it and weep, and laugh. And then read it again. I know I will.