Summary and book reviews of The Road Builder by Nicholas Hershenow

The Road Builder

By Nicholas Hershenow

The Road Builder
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  • Hardcover: May 2001,
    528 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2002,
    528 pages.

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About this Book

Book Summary

The Road Builder is a spellbinding story of romance and exploration. Will and Kate Haslin reach Ngemba with only the most vague idea about what life in Africa requires, and with no clear understanding about their own relationship. But they arrive with a concrete, if secret, goal: to uncover the shadowy past of Kate's willful--and dying--Uncle Pers.

Lost in a vast savanna, with only a hint of common language, the young Americans must reshape themselves inside a culture without expectation. And when they learn that Uncle Pers may be The Road Builder, a mysterious figure with a colonial connection, the dangers they face turn personal.

In Ngemba, history merges with myth, fable, and even gossip so that sometimes one must hallucinate the truth. It's an isolated world of realists and visionaries, who understand that "sometimes the only way out of a place is to go further in." But most important, Ngemba is the tense, hazy village where Will and Kate learn to dream what they know.

With the seductive prose of a gifted storyteller, Nick Hershenow weaves sophisticated questions about the nature of truth and reality into the epic but very personal story of a man and a woman who must define themselves against endless mysteries.

A luminous and wise debut that heralds the arrival of a major talent.

From the Author:

When I started this book I was largely motivated by some powerful and intricate, yet still vague, sense of Africa: something to do with the mood of sitting on a porch above a river listening to the timeless sounds of the equatorial night - sounds of the physical forces and creatures and humans and spirits that inhabit the night. A mood of intense beauty, sensuality, and spirituality, but in the context of a sorrowful history and destructive politics and truly outrageous injustice and inequity. This sense carried through the long writing of the book, and I hope the reader will find that it ultimately crystallized into a distinctive vision of Africa, an evocative adventure and love story, and a compelling exploration of memory, history, and the creation of myth.

Chapter 1
Deathbed, Tea, Wife

This morning Uncle Pers rose out of his deathbed to join us for tea.

We hear him shuffling out of the dark cluttered recesses of his house. We hear the slow thumping of his walker in the hallway, and when the thumping pauses we hear his rattling breaths. Then he emerges into the sitting room, blinking and squinting like some pale wrinkled creature of the underground, stopping to shade his eyes against the light reflected off the pastel buildings and the bay and the arid blue sky.

"His will to live is phenomenal!" Aunt Mavis says emotionally, though exactly what emotion she is expressing is hard to say.

I should clarify "deathbed." He has been lying there for weeks, but it became clear some time ago that he was not about to die in it. And now he is up and coming to tea. But no one is fooled into thinking that the deathwatch is over. Uncle Pers is old and very sick, and any recovery he makes will be short-lived; within days, weeks at best, he'...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The following are intended to enrich your conversation and help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for approaching this novel.

  1. Much of this novel revolves around communication. Characters speak in different languages, making communication difficult. Even those who speak the same language somehow have trouble connecting. What point(s) do you think Hershenow is making about our modern world?

  2. Kate is an enigma. In what way does that drive the novel or create dramatic tension in the story?

  3. In Ngemba, history merges with myth and story, so much so that it’s hard to discern hard, cold facts. Do you think the merging of narratives and beliefs encourages a broader understanding of the past or do you think...
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Media Reviews
Book Sense - Robert Olen Butler

How rare to find a novel that seamlessly and artfully blends a beautifully nuanced, character-driven story with a story of epic scope, one that resonates into the largest issues of our world. The Road Builder succeeds brilliantly at this, leading us through both the mystery that is Africa and the mystery that is the human heart. Nicholas Hershenow is a major literary talent, and his debut--and, not incidentally, the debut of BlueHen Books to nurture such talent--are reasons for booklovers to rejoice.

Library Journal - Faye A Chadwell

... this is ultimately an unsatisfying read. Much of it just plods along, generating little excitement for the reader which, given the novel's epic scope, is all the more disappointing.

Publishers Weekly

Hershenow, himself a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, delivers a fictional meal as rich, spicy and mysterious as the "bima," or stew of "things," dished out by Will's Ngemban hosts.

Booklist - Elizabeth Bush

This subtle novel, distinguished by strong characterization, examines the complexities of human and cross-cultural relationships.

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