Two boys venture from their village to hunt in a nearby forest. They shoot down bats and cook them over an open fire. Within a month, the boys are dead, their bodies ravaged by an unknown disease. Experts caution against touching the sick. But their warning comes too late: the virus spreads rapidly, and the boys’ father is barely able to send his eldest daughter away for a chance at survival.
In a series of moving snapshots, Véronique Tadjo illustrates the terrible extent of the Ebola epidemic. The story is told through the eyes of myriad characters: the doctor who tirelessly treats patients day after day in a sweltering tent, protected only by his plastic suit; the student who volunteers to work as a gravedigger while universities are closed, helping the teams overwhelmed by the sheer volume of bodies; the grandmother who agrees to take in an orphaned boy cast out of his village for fear of infection. And watching over them all is the ancient and wise baobab tree, mourning the dire state of the earth yet providing a sense of hope for the future.
First published in French in 2017, and now acutely relevant to our times in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, In the Company of Men explores critical questions about how we can combat fear and prejudice.
I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for In the Company of Men today. While the subject matter may not be the most comforting right now, I found this to be an important novel looking at how viruses spread but also about our encroachment on the natural world.
In the Company of Men is a work of fiction, but one that is based upon true events. It explores the Ebola epidemic affecting multiple countries in Africa from 2014 to 2016. Rather than a continuous narrative, Tadjo has shown the outbreak – how it started, how it spread, and the effect it has – through a series of vignettes told from various perspectives. This format works brilliantly to really bring home the severity of this virus and the difficulties faced in treating and containing an outbreak.
The virus respects nobody, makes no exceptions.
The impact for those affected is of course devastating. Ebola has an extremely high mortality rate which varies by strain, and while it isn’t airborne, it is highly contagious for those seeking to comfort their loved ones if they fall sick. Tadjo doesn’t sensationalise but nor does she shy away from the facts of Ebola and the symptoms caused by this virus. Perhaps most affecting for me personally were the chapters told from the perspective of a doctor and a nurse who both work throughout the epidemic to treat and comfort those who are ill at huge personal risk. The sacrifices they make, the risks they take are nothing short of phenomenal and I was deeply moved by their selflessness.
While the perspective of doctors, nurses, sufferers, and survivors might be expected in a novel such as this, there are some atypical perspectives explored to great effect. These include a baobab tree, and while having the perspective of a tree in such a novel may sound strange, I liked it. It gives the author the opportunity to explore human nature and the ways in which we have developed and evolved and, unfortunately, had a negative impact on the planet. Our scant regard for the natural world is abundantly clear, and this perspective adds a sense of morality to the novel as well as a warning that we cannot continue in the same vein. That said, the baobab’s outlook is – perhaps surprisingly – one of optimism. It’s not too late. Yet.
While Ebola is a much deadlier virus, it’s hard to read In the Company of Men and not find parallels with the current COVID situation. It is a particularly affecting read bringing to light a recent epidemic and I found it to be an insightful and creative portrayal. It’s not the most comforting subject matter – particularly right now – but I recommend it in order to understand the impact that such a virus has, how it affects a population, and the efforts of those truly selfless individuals who put themselves at risk in order to treat and comfort those infected.
In the Company of Men is translated by Véronique Tadjo in collaboration with John Cullen. It is published by Hope Read and is available to purchase now in paperback and eBook. Huge thanks to the publisher and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the review copy and the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.
About the Author
VÉRONIQUE TADJO is an author, artist and academic. Born in Paris, she grew up in Abidjan (Ivory Coast). The award-winning author of several novels and children’s books, as well as two volumes of poetry, Véronique has lived in Lagos, Mexico City, Nairobi and Johannesburg, where she was Professor and head of French and Francophone Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. She now shares her time between London and Abidjan.
Make sure you check out the other wonderful bloggers who have taken part in the tour: