Just as this book is divided into two narratives (that aren’t quite halves), so too I felt divided when I first started reading it. On the one hand, I could appreciate the quality of the writing, but on the other, I didn’t think I liked the precocious protagonist, Augusta, nor the way nothing much seemed to happen. In many ways, I wondered where the story was going to go, if anywhere. How wrong I was. For, at some point, the story grabbed me by the head and heart and I was taken on an interior journey like no other and utterly captivated.
This is a tale of a twin, Augusta, and her fierce intelligence and desire to understand everything, break it down into components she can grasp and link, despite living in a small English village and despite her parents and twin’s contentment with their home and village. Fascinated by words and the world around her, at a very young age, Augusta, the bane of the parents and teachers’ lives, picks the small African country of Burundi, just because of the sound the word makes, and decides to learn everything she can about this strife-torn place. But her increasing knowledge of Burundi, other places, words, and later languages, people and cultures, just increases her desire to escape her roots and discover where and if there is somewhere else she belongs.
The novel doesn’t belong to Augusta alone, sharing it is young African, Parfait, who happens to live in Burundi but, like Augusta, feels a longing to shake off his origins and explore, find out if there is somewhere else he can feel truly at home.
When terrible tragedy shakes both Parfait and Augusta’s lives, they’re forced to take stock and step out of their uncomfortable existence and set off into unchartered territory – not necessarily of the geographical kind, but of the emotional. It is through their disparate journeys that they come to understand themselves and those around them and realise their place once and for all.
This book was a slow but beautiful build that at brief times moved swiftly, and other times lingered on something small, but nevertheless significant before creating a huge impact – often later in the tale. The twin narratives, much like Augusta and her twin, Julia, are complimentary and diverge, but never at the expense of plot. The language is lyrical and the play on words (including those in the title), which I confess at first grated upon me, became a magical component of the story – for after all, how to do we express, understand and communicate with others, if not mainly through words? Do we not seek, as Socrates’ Symposium posits, our “other half” in various ways? Augusta’s delight in language and wordplay becomes infectious and imparts layers of meaning that often only become apparent after the fact.
Like Augusta and Parfait, this lovely book lingers in the imagination and heart long after the last page.