Humorous and disturbing…a sense of the exchange value of love and hate.
The New York Times
Sumner has wickedly, wittily captured why the experience of Africa, once endured, can never be forgotten.
The Orlando Sentinel
Her two years serving in the Peace Corps in Senegal have provided writer Melanie Sumner with a world to apprehend and a refractory protagonist to do the apprehending. “Polite Society” sends a young woman from Tennessee marching her ignorant appetites through the elusive, dead-serious complexities of an impoverished African society.
It is a tragicomedy of cultural misapprehension. Darren, like legions of tourists from privileged civilizations–the English once were famous for it, then the Americans and now the Japanese–treats the foreign place as something to see, to experience, to acquire.
In fact, the foreign place sees, experiences and does its best to acquire her ; and to their mutual peril.
The Peace Corps has provided fertile ground for the empathic vision and sharp wit of a talented writer, as is evidenced in these elegantly written, slyly humorous short stories set in Senegal. “The Edge of the Sky,” about the dissatisfied wife of an American ambassador, is a powerful opener, but it is incongruent with the ensuing tales chronicling the increasingly drunken misadventures of Darren, a 25-year-old Tennessee ne’er-do-well whom the Peace Corps sends to teach at a university that has been on strike for a year. Self-destructive and myopic (literally as well as figuratively), yet endearingly tenderhearted, Darren stumbles her way through training camp and life on her own in an apartment in Dakar, with attendant affairs with Senegalese men, a trip to Mali, a Christmas visit from her parents and civil unrest. Sumner brings an exotic locale and its denizens, black and white, to life in vivid detail. The Senegalese, “as tall as giants,” saunter along, taking “agile, delicate steps, like horses.” Darren’s mother’s eyes were “sea green, shadowed with an intelligence that would have been unnerving if one could stare into them longer than the second she permitted.” This is a striking collection from a powerful new voice.
This entertaining debut (sections of which have appeared in The New Yorker) looks ironically at the twentysomething generation as represented by Louise Darren Parkman, slacker extraordinaire. Unemployed, on the rebound, and a spiritual outcast in her native Tennessee, Louise lies herself into the Peace Corps and soon lands in Senegal preparing to teach English as a foreign language though she lacks previous academic experience or any knowledge of the country’s customs and languages. Having thus set up her protagonist for misadventure, Sumner details Louise’s follies in seven linked stories abounding with culture clashes, drunken excesses, and doomed interracial romances. Louise, an inebriated not-so-innocent abroad, will never get a service award from her government, but she provides tragicomic variety for her bemused Senegalese friends and lovers, within whose hospitable society she is a fascinating, if destructive, anomaly. In fact, her outrageousness may not be that far removed from U.S. diplomatic officialdom, as Sumner hints slyly in the introductory tale. Recommended for libraries collecting comprehensively in contemporary fiction. Starr E. Smith, Marymount Univ. Lib., Arlington, Va.