Visiting a slum in Nairobi is like walking through a haunted house: a horror around every corner. You have to step carefully to avoid slipping into the open sewers. You see and hear and smell that people are living in situations very close to hell on earth. It’s hard to fight the overwhelming urge to get in a car, lock the doors and drive fast in the other direction.

In her sensitive first novel, Mercy, out next month from Other Press, author Lara Santoro describes, through her protagonist, Anna, what it’s like to spend the night in Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s many slums:

I tried to sleep but the sound of coughing kept me up all night: coughing from a million directions, all of it so close, so intrusively maddeningly close. More than once I had to resist the urge to stand up and scream at everyone to shut up. … All of the walking around earlier in the day-the bile, the blood, the corpse-strewn pathways, the rigid muteness of people consumed by the virus-all of it failed to give me the true measure of Korogocho’s madness. Beyond the hunger, the filth, the violence, beyond the trauma of constant loss was the insanity of overcrowding.

Anna, a foreign correspondent for an American newspaper is visiting this slum to report on the ravages of the AIDS virus. The very next night, she finds herself at a fancy cocktail party across town in the company of her lover, Nick: “The perfect alignment of his teeth, the frivolity of his white linen shirt were obvious antidotes to Korogocho’s pain.” Strung between these two worlds, seeking refuge in alcohol, Anna ends the night shouting at a stranger, slapping her lover and stamping off into the darkness by herself. The raw chasm between have and have-not brings her down into her own darkness.

Anna is a wild character. She drinks too much, cheats on her boyfriend, lies to her boss, going so far as to fabricate a coup attempt in Nigeria to escape another moment in Nairobi with her cuckolded boyfriend. Anna is a fallen creature, seemingly unable to get her life together, and yet driven forward by a full-bodied desire to make moral sense of the world. She risks her life interviewing a war criminal so she can plumb the depths of his empty eyes; she makes late-night calls to an Italian priest who works in the slums, seeking absolution.

What Santoro so ably captures in her novel is the despairing wildness that results from witnessing human horrors first hand and being unable to avert them. Anna recalls covering a famine in South Sudan: She and her photographer are watching a starving Sudanese boy crawl across the desert landscape on his hands and knees, looking futilely for sustenance.

The boy is inching forward in the dust and this time I can’t help myself. I kneel in front of him and put a small carton of juice to his lips. Gerard, my photographer on this trip, catches me just in time. “Are you crazy?” he yells, galloping toward me. “Give him all that sugar and he will die!” I stand back, horrified. The boy lets out an animal wail, his eyes filled with tears.

But of course the foreign correspondent does have the tools to alleviate this suffering, right? By writing an article, taking a photo, filming a scene, correspondents can stir the rest of the world to action. But correspondents in Africa face a special problem: the Western public has only so much attention for the tragedies they cover.

Anna’s boyfriend, Michael (based on Santoro’s real-life boyfriend, Associated Press producer Myles Tierney, who was killed on the job in Sierra Leone in 1999,) recalls bitterly watching a small boy clinging to his dead mother’s body in an unnamed African conflict. When Michael tries to pick up the boy, the boy begins scream, and an aid worker comes over to yell at Michael:

Now everyone’s yelling and the kid’s crying and I’m so fucking angry I’m stiff, you know, I’m out of control….You know why? Because London’s telling me to pack up and get out: none of the networks are picking up our shit anymore. It’s Africa. No one cares. No one gives a shit. I tell Angela: ‘Wait a minute: there’s no peace agreement, there’s practically constant gunfire.’ And you know what she says? She says: ‘We’re short of people for the German elections.’

But what if you could help one person, just like the boy in that hackneyed inspirational story about throwing starfish into the sea? Anna’s chance comes in the form of her housemaid, Mercy, an intimidating woman from the slums, a mother and former prostitute, who gives some stability to Anna’s chaotic, gin-drenched life. When Anna discovers that Mercy has AIDS, she fights to get her life-saving antiretroviral treatments, which she would otherwise not be able to afford.

But even being a life-saver is not so simple. After yelling at Mercy one afternoon, Anna meditates on the fact that she literally has life-or-death power over Mercy — able to deliver the treatments or withhold them — and that even this well-intentioned power can corrupt.

Anna sees the stark outlines of her power as a “rich” foreigner when she is bullying a local doctor into okaying Mercy’s antiretroviral course before it’s too late. The overburdened doctor, working long hours at night to process test results for other HIV and AIDS patients, shouts at her:

Tell me: Is she the only one? In this country we are losing seven hundred people a day to this disease! Seven hundred people a day! Now because this woman is your friend, because she is the friend of an mzungu [white person] I must hurry! And the others? Standing in line quietly? Must I carry them to their graves?

Anna finds some moral clarity only when Mercy herself, arising from her deathbed by the grace of antiretrovirals, begins to fight the injustice around her. She starts a movement, leading hundreds of thousands of Kenyans to demand affordable AIDS treatment. Mercy represents what every outsider feels is the only true solution to some of Africa’s worst problems: having Africans themselves stand up and demand something better.

What is disappointing for the reader, however, is that we are left wondering about Anna’s own inner demons and inner divinity. She becomes subsumed in Mercy’s noble struggle, but is that enough? What happens when Mercy is gone?

Ultimately we want to know from Anna how to live on this planet, where slums rub up against cocktail parties, where the death of a boy’s mother is not headline news, where broken souls hurt one another in spite of their love.

Although the book ends movingly with a quotation from Corinthians, it is perhaps best summarized by words spoken by Anna’s friend Kez, a fellow journalist, coke addict, and devout Muslim: “Allah is great. You’re not. End of story.”

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