Harmattan by Gaye Shortland

I actually read up to about a third of the book last year around October, then misplaced it shortly after. Gosh that’s almost a year ago. It was very annoying because I was so into the book. Fortunately I found it a few weeks ago in a backpack I had chucked someplace and only found it because I wanted to use that bag again. So I started all over again. I devoured it in one sitting earlier today.

Harmattan by Gaye Shortland, published in 1999 by Poolbeg Press Ltd of Dublin, Ireland

The protagonist is Ellen, an Irish expat lecturer in the city of Zaria in Nigeria, who was pining for her missing lover Amodi. They were supposed to meet in Zaria upon her return from Ireland on leave, but weeks passed with no news of him. Amodi is a Tuareg from Niger, nomads of the Saharan desert who also form a small community in neighbouring Nigeria, where the men work as security guards and nightwatchmen.

When Yusuf, another Tuareg watchman who was a friend of Ellen’s and who was working for her acquaintances in the expat community, died in an accident, his employers made the request to Ellen to personally deliver his belongings and wages to Yusuf’s wife and daughters in Niger.

It was a huge favour to ask, as she would need to take time off from work and the destination was some five hundred kilometres away, not to mention the fact that it was dangerous to be on the road due to the political unrest in Niger. But Ellen grabbed the chance to hit the road to find her beloved Amodi. She set off for the journey in her Land Cruiser with three young local friends: Haruna, Ataka and Ilyas. Lads who did odd jobs for her.

Their journey hit a snag practically right at the beginning, when they were told at the border that the military were not allowing vehicles to travel to their destination, which resulted in them having to take an alternative route that was a massive loop, a long way round which added another thousand kilometres to their journey.

The book is far too short (207 pages), or at least I wish more was revealed about how some of the characters fared in the end. It’s a bit painful to fall for characters and root for them yet not know by the time the book’s ended whether they’re safe or not. Well maybe not fall for them, but become fond of them as Ellen was. I need the closure dammit. Yeah it’s a novel, fiction, but still. I think I’m just sad, and a bit shaken by what happened to some of the other villagers towards the end of the book, especially one of the women.

Ms. Shortland describes Ellen’s shock and grief so eloquently. Words which brutally cut through to what Ellen saw and what her mind registered and which slyly snaked around my heart. It was a painful scene to read, especially since it came quite suddenly. Most of the book were Ellen’s accounts of her interactions and relationships with the nomadic people she met along the way, immersed in a huge and entertaining dose of wit and humour and her no-nonsense attitude. Her observations of the different aspects of their culture, sometimes touchingly comparing their quirks to her own Irish people. Her extensive knowledge of the region and its people, spurred by her passion and deep love for them. However she’s no sentimental fool; she’s infuriated and pained by some of their ways, and to add to her frustration she had to rein in her anger and keep her honest thoughts to herself so as not to alienate them.

I was hoping to read some reviews of this beautiful book I’ll never forget, but I can’t seem to find them though. I’m so lucky to have come across it at a second-hand bookstore.

Oh and Harmattan is the name of the wind that blows south to the area from the Sahara between the end of November and the middle of March.


9 thoughts on “Harmattan by Gaye Shortland

  1. HI Abdul
    This is Gaye Shortland, author of HARMATTAN which you liked so much. I’ve only just seen your review for which I thank you. You should read my book POLYGAMY which is set in the same milieu and has similar characters. By the way, I’m female and basically the “heroine” of HARMATTAN and POLYGAMY. The photo on the cover of HARMATTAN is actually my daughter’s uncle (with whom I have lost contact). And you should definitely read ROUGH RIDES IN DRY PLACES which is a kind of comedy with the same background. I have also written 2 books about the male gay community in Cork, Ireland. Unfortunately they may be a little difficult for you to read as I wrote them in a kind of Cork-speak. It’s not a dialect, I just used some quirks such as spelling words like ‘over’ as ‘ovur’ to give an idea of our Cork accent. Most people can read them no bother. I would be happy to send you some of these books as a gift if you send me your address.

    • Miss Shortland! I am so flattered and so deeply happy to receive your message here!

      I am so sorry it has taken me so very long to see this message and to reply to it. I have not logged into this little blog of mine for a couple of months due to some personal issues. But of course, so typical of my luck that it’s during the longest period I did not log in, that’s the time I receive such a nice hello from the author of a book I love so much.

      You are so kind to offer to send your books as a gift! I’m very touched indeed, it’s so lovely and generous of you. I feel a bit shy though (for lack of a better word) at taking freebies (for lack of a better way of putting it). I will look out for POLYGAMY and RIDES IN DRY PLACES in the library and bookstores here. Otherwise I will check them out online, along with your books on Cork’s gay community, which I have discovered to be MIND THAT, ‘TIS MY BROTHER and its sequel TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN. I am looking forward to reading them. I have never ordered anything online before in my life, so this is a great reason to start!

      Once again, thank you so much Gaye! You have really made my day and put such a huge smile on my face. Cheers!

      • Hi Abdul! I too only noticed your reply by accident — my cousin just emailed me as he just (coincidentally) spotted your review — so I came on here and saw your reply! He was impressed! He is asking would you mind if he put your review on my website? (He set the site up for me)

        Hope you get this! Reply to gayeshortland@gmail.com as it is easier to get me there!

        • Hi Gaye! Yes I would love to have my review on your website, I’m so flattered. I will be replying to him too. Thank you! Cheers.

          • Hope this reaches you!

            Great! Will tell my cousin to post up the review!


      • Hi Abdul — I only became aware you had answered by a happy accident! My cousin just noticed your review (coincidentally) and contacted me to let me know. He was impressed! He is asking if you would mind if he put your review on my website (which he set up for me). Can you reply to me at gayeshortland@gmail.com? It’s easier and more direct.

    • Also: it’s so interesting that the handsome gent on the cover is actually a relative! Hopefully you and your daughter will somehow make contact again someday, with him and his family. My best wishes on that. Knowing this about the cover makes the book even more personal and intimate.

      And somehow I am not surprised that you the author are actually Ellen! *smile* The book feels very very intimate. I shall have another go soon. I’ll take a deep breath first, it’s quite the emotional ride!

  2. Hi Abdul. My name is Nick Shortland and I handle Gaye’s website (www.gayeshortland.com). We would love to use your review on the site. Would you allow us to do this? Gaye would like to send copies of her other books to you. If you email your postal address to me or to Gaye we will arrange shipment. We are working to publish the books as e-books but that will take some time, so good old paper books are still the only way to read them.

    • Hi Nick. I would love to have my review on Gaye’s site! It’s an honour and I am so flattered you and Gaye asked. Thank you so much!

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