It’s 1978, and Dawit can do little more than dream wistfully of his past. He once lived a life of privilege because his father held a high government position in Ethiopia, but when the government was overthrown by a new regime, Dawit was lucky to have escaped sure death. Now he finds himself just another nameless Ethiopian refugee in Paris, living in squalor with other refugees and struggling to survive. He is shocked when he spots M., a famous author, in a cafe one day, and is utterly dumbfounded when she actually catches his attention and calls him over to sit with her.
In the blink of an eye, Dawit’s fortune changes. Upon hearing his devastating history, M. offers him a place to stay, saying that she wants to do something to make a difference. She offers him the world: designer clothes, money, security, and even a temporary visa so that he can travel with her from Paris to her Sardinian summer villa on the Bay of Foxes. Overcome with this turn of events, Dawit refuses to let himself contemplate what he might have to give in return until it’s too late.
The book wasn’t quite was I was expecting when I first read the summary. It takes a (predictable) turn about halfway in, but ultimately, this is the story of disenfranchisement and the abuse of power. Once he gets past the shock of his good fortune, Dawit realizes that he is simply another one of M.’s commodities. He is intelligent and well-educated, but ultimately, none of this changes how M. and her wealthy friends view him. To them, he is just a beautiful boy from Africa who can amuse them with his body and his personal stories. He seethes at the realization:
He feels himself tremble as he says the words, suddenly at a rage with everyone, including these white people who are listening with their mouths slightly open….He realizes he has said too much, with too much vehemence; he has shown them what he feels, and he hates them for their indiscreet, probing questions, their idle curiosity. He feels empty, as though has lost something precious, his pride…M. clears her throat and says is all too terrible, really, to even contemplate: they must change the subject, she cannot bear it. They must speak of other things. “Life must go on,” she says to him, then smiles and finishes her glass of champagne.
As I was reading, I kept thinking of how easily the book could be adapted into a quiet little indie film; it often felt like I was watching a movie. The books is fairly short and can easily be read in a day, but Kohler takes her time and writes with a slightly detached air, even though everything is told from Dawit’s point of view. It’s mesmerizing at first, but as the book progressed, this detached quality became one of the things I took issue with since it was narrated from a first person perspective. I liked how Kohler kept acknowledging Dawit’s objectification and overall powerlessness, but ultimately, the book left me wanting more. I can see people reading and enjoying the book, but I personally felt that it lost its steam towards the end.
The Bay of Foxes was released on June 26, 2012 by Penguin.