Wanting to Like a Mozambique Epic That’s Almost Good

Train of Salt and Sugar  I began reading The Train of Salt and Sugar convinced I would like it, and I was almost right. It has all the ingredients of a thrilling epic movie.

Based on a true incident that occurred in 1987, it opens in the midst of the savagely brutal Mozambique civil war, in which no passenger train has been able to cross the country for three months. Now three trains, with a military escort, will attempt to make the deadly crossing through enemy territory, along with several hundred railway workers and civilians who are willing to work for their passage, repairing the tracks as they go.

It has all the makings of a disaster epic, constantly cutting from one point of view to another, from train to train – you meet Mariamu, trying to get her salt to the markets of Malawi, the beautiful young Nurse Rosa risking her life to get medical supplies, the good-hearted young Lieutenant Taiar who’s not afraid to do the right thing, the Muslim conductor who has drunk contaminated water and become deathly sick, the pregnant woman who’s nearing her time, the religious zealot engine stoker who begins gathering followers, the jealous and vicious Second Lieutenant Salomao who chooses whatever woman he wants, the frightening enemy Commander Baboon who stalks the railway lines, and the brave expedition’s own nearly mythic Commander Seven Ways who leads the trains, turning his back contemptuously on bullets and calculating the whereabouts of the enemy by birdsong.

Sounds like my kind of novel! So why am I discontent with it? Why won’t I be choosing it for next month’s book club selection?

I’m dissatisfied with how the threads are finally assembled at the ending. Because they aren’t assembled. Why have an ensemble plot and follow so many different characters if we’re not even going to find out if they lived or died? At the beginning, Mariamu plays a major role, and in fact it’s her salt that she’s bringing to market to change into sugar that gives the novel it’s name. She is the friend of the hero and heroine, she learns how to assist at nursing, and two-thirds of the way through she vanishes from the story inexplicably. So does the dreadful, drunken bully Salomao, the frightening and violent antagonist, who may or may not have shot the young lieutenant treacherously in the back. And what about the legendary Commander Seven Ways? Waving his magic wildebeest’s tail, impervious to a rain of bullets, indestructible even by a landmine, he strides out of the story and is nowhere to be seen at the end. Only the young lovers dominate the conclusion.

Oddest of all is leaving out the scene where the young lieutenant is shot. We watch him heroically save the day. And an asterisk later, he’s being brought in wounded. It’s like you’ve missed a chapter. The major turning point of the plot is not described. I supposed there’s something to be said for leaving out a possibly clichéd confrontation between Taiar and Salamao, but doing such a climactic moment off-stage left this reader perplexed and emotionally underwhelmed.

I so want to support 30 Degrees South, the handsome little book’s South African publisher. I truly couldn’t put the book down. It’s got a dramatic situation and a cast of characters that a good screenplay writer could make into a superb movie. But although the novel is a swift, clean read and I don’t regret the experience, The Train of Salt and Sugar left me ultimately feeling baffled and unsatisfied.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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