Two boys venture from their village to hunt in a nearby forest, where they shoot down bats with glee, and cook their prey over an open fire.
Within a month, they are dead, bodies ravaged by an insidious disease that neither the local healer’s potions nor the medical team’s treatments could cure.
Compounding the family’s grief, experts warn against touching the sick.
But this caution comes too late: the virus spreads rapidly, and the boys’ father is barely able to send his eldest daughter away for a chance at survival.
Made up of a series of linked vignettes, this meditative novel charts the course of the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Beginning with two boys whose hunt for bushmeat results in the sickness arriving their village, this short but powerful novella follows healthcare workers, grave diggers, foreign NGO volunteers, grieving families and Ebola survivors to tell a story of human hubris, weaving the story of the virus’s decimation of humanity into a profound fable about the devastation caused to the natural world by human endeavours.
Given the subject matter, this isn’t exactly a book that I ‘enjoyed’ per se. Beneath the lyrical prose, there are some incredibly difficult scenes and the author does not shy away from portraying the terror and heartbreak of the crisis, and the humanitarian issues that followed in its wakes. The sparse but evocative language adds to the depth of the writing, resulting in a powerfully moving tale that packs a punch that belies the novella’s slender length.
I found the way in which Véronique Tadjo wove in chapters told from the perspective of the baobab tree, the bat, and even ebola itself fascinating although I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely convinced that the connection between the environmental destruction caused by humans and the spreading of the virus always came across clearly.
Whilst I found these chapters beautifully written and interesting, I felt the book was at its strongest when showing the range of human responses to the virus, from the compassion of the healthcare workers and the practical concerns of the gravediggers to the fear, pain, anger, and denial faced by the population affected by the virus.
Written with wisdom and compassion, In the Company of Men is a powerfully affecting book that, whilst it won’t be for everyone, offers a beautifully written and evocative tale about humanity’s capacity for destruction, hope, renewal, and resilience.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 26 April 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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