Connie is blissfully unaware her life is about to change in the wildly stunning Kalahari. With brilliant sunsets seeping bright color into every nook and cranny, humans and wild life try to co-exist without crossing silent boundaries in this extraordinarily beautiful part of the world. As Connie arrives with her best friends from university, and everyone seems relaxed, there is a sense that insurmountable obstacles lie dormant in the vastness of this jungle.
Connie has planned a safari like no other at her grandfather’s lodge. Twenty years have passed since they were all together, lives are altered, scars are borne, things remain unsaid. Each character is well-defined, marvelously layered and familiar.
Connie has four children with her husband Julian; an utterly arrogant and powerful politician. Sara is strong, single, a top barrister, and sharp. Lizzie sort of lives in the past; always on a diet, she remembers their university days best, she is also a little insecure. Matt is responsible, steady, married to Katherine and trying to have a baby. Dan is well-loved, sweet, he would like to find his permanent home. His partner Alan is interesting, not a lot of depth( which I think the author does deliberately) likes to keep things fun and flirty. Luke and Connie have a history.The underlying tension is palpable to all their friends. He is handsome, kind, newly divorced and a single dad. He has wounds that extend beyond anyone’s expectation of how greatly their lives have evolved, and what it has cost.
This book is everything women’s fiction should be. Well paced, beautifully rhythmic, deeply familiar and relevant, amid a magical backdrop. The title so apt; the characters do unpack their lives, a gentle drop, a huge impact, neat, dysfunctional and carefree. Each one letting us know how they unpack.
These friends have so much going on. Coming together, having to shed their everyday personalities, to be who they truly are, is in many ways a test of endurance. Connie is serene but lonely. Her children are grown, she is looking for a purpose. Julian is a serial adulterer – I’m not giving anything away by saying that. It is in most synopses of the book. She sees Luke and is immediately drawn to him, but he is aloof and she does nothing to deal with their past. Sara has her own demons, it relates to her career and decisions she has made. Lizzie is quirky, if a bit misguided. Her voice is a little annoying at times but you find patience with her. Matt and Dan are lovely.Their stories don’t mirror each other, but they confide in the long friendship they share. Dan wants to live in Tuscany. Alan does not. Matt struggles with responsibilities.
There is a deep love between all of them. The author writes so gently and skilfully, adding nuances about interpersonal relationships, you are drawn to everyone in the group, even to the animals they encounter. The Black Rhino is as significant as the young South African guides Gus and Ben, who are quiet, astute and add grit to the story, as they take the group on their tours. So much of the setting affects the story line. The Kalahari heals and embeds its riotous color into the book, you get the feeling these people are familiar to you, as the story delves deeply into their personal lives. You are immediately made aware that in a crisis, these friends would do anything for each other. I loved that in particular about the book. Because as expected, a crisis does occur and you watch as these wonderful characters rise to the challenge, then fall, and deal with revelations and secrets in their own mature way. Each one asserting their role in their personal relationships and relationship with each other.
The book reads quickly but impacts you deeply, when you least expect it. The story asks if a twenty year friendship like the one Connie has with her friends, can survive a twenty year hiatus, forgive, love and grieve together? I carried the story with me for days. It just would not leave.
Thank you to Bloomsbury USA and NetGalley for the advanced review copy.
Book – The Art of Unpacking Your Life by Shireen Jilla
- Bloomsbury USA
- 318 Pages
- Kindle Edition, 2015
- eISBN: 9781448215195