Winner of the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize in 2017, this memoir recounts the writer's 20 months living with his wife in the southern African kingdom of Lesotho, whose people are full of a spirit of joyful absurdity, resolve, and affection for strangers even as they are devastated by the AIDS epidemic.
It is a wonderful book, keenly observed, a breezy, thought-provoking read in which McGrath and his wife, Ellen Block, live and work in this small country that hardly anyone has heard of. They throw themselves wholeheartedly into life in Lesotho ... it is all so wonderfully fascinating ... He is scrupulously careful not to make judgments of the people or their culture, and when terrible things happen, he recounts them but does not condemn ... The people he writes about—other teachers, students, elderly mountain people who sell bootleg alcohol, shepherds, random children—are sharply and affectionately drawn ... McGrath is a likable, curious guide, embracing whatever adventures come along ... that first extended visit [to Lesotho] was magical, for them and for readers.
McGrath’s memoir...is an endearing combination of insightful commentary and sympathetic comedy. This is a book in the best tradition of travel writing as it offers an outsider’s take on a culture with a genuine appreciation for cultural and social differences. Lesotho comes alive as a nation that has the feel of a small community ... laugh-out-loud moments are balanced by heart-warming interludes, and altogether, this is an illuminating and enjoyable read that reminds readers of the essential oneness of humanity.
[After reading certain passages], I wondered if McGrath’s editor had fallen asleep at the wheel ... Another oddity is his Scrabble player’s use of words—when last did you read 'flocculent' or 'tintinnabulation'? ... there is something about McGrath’s writing—the anecdotes that turn on hairpin bends to double back and sometimes stop abruptly, the humorist’s timing, and the sheer delight in overstatement—that manages to express something of the Sesotho language ... McGrath [tells] stories in a way that favors narrative over genre. However, a potential weakness of the text is a lack of consistent style across narratives, tending towards a multivocality that can be distracting ... [The book] is messy, often overwritten, sometimes jumbled. But above all it is joyful. McGrath tells his stories, even the tragic ones, with hope and humor—the greatest defenses against despair—writing against those characterizations of the continent that Wainaina satirized ... more often than not, [McGrath] hits the mark.