Picks and Pans Review: Tales Out of Africa

updated 06/16/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Uwem Akpan |

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"When they ask you," a Rwandan Tutsi mother warns her daughter shortly before their homeland explodes in violence, "say you're one of them." "Who?" asks the puzzled girl, whose father is Hutu. "Anybody," her mother says. "You just have to."

In the corrupt, war-ravaged Africa of this starkly beautiful debut collection, identity is shifting, never to be trusted—and the key to who lives and who dies. Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest, uses children as his storytellers: a Muslim teen posing as a Christian to escape mob slaughter; a Nairobi street kid whose family scrapes by on his sister's prostitution pay. The narrators move from naïveté to awareness along with the reader: In the most powerful story, which unfolds like a grim fairy tale, a Nigerian boy realizes the feasts his uncle is providing have a sinister purpose—the boy and his sister must be plump before they're sold into slavery. "Fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet," says the author in an interview that ends the book. His people, and the dreamlike horror of the worlds they reveal, are impossible to forget.

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