When Hoopoes Go to Heaven

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When Hoopoes Go to Heaven by Gaile Parkin, book reviewThrough the eyes of a young boy, his new home in Swaziland is a wonderful place. The garden is teeming with fascinating beasts and beautiful plants and 10-year old Benedict is mesmerized by the creatures on his door step. The young naturalist is almost able to forget that his place in the family has changed and he’s rather lonely. His elder sister is playing with his new sister, his younger brother with his new brother. Benedict is still the one in the middle but he’s now middle of five rather than middle of three. Most cumbersome is his position as eldest son, a responsibility that he’s not entirely sure he likes or wants. It means he’s constantly anxious, trying to help, trying to put things right. He’s worried that his new Mama’s cake baking business isn’t going well because as a foreigner she’s not really supposed to be working. He wants to find a way to bring in business but he also wants to find a distraction to give Mama something else to think about instead of her ailing business.

Benedict’s Baba and Mama are new – or rather not entirely new because they used to be his grandparents. His new brother and sister are actually his cousins who – like him and his siblings – are orphans. At a time when his new Baba and Mama should be taking it easy and slowing down, they’re chasing around Africa to find consultancy contracts for Baba so he can support his five new children. This strangely patchwork family might sound unlikely to readers outside Africa but it reflects the reality of life in countries where lives are taken cheaply and where AIDS has cut out whole generations, leaving grandparents to become parents to their orphaned grandchildren.

Through Benedict’s eyes we see the beauty and the joy in a country that has the worst statistics for HIV and AIDS infection in the world. We see the gentle distractions of childhood – school projects, searching for treasure, hanging out with his friends – juxtaposed against shocking things happening to ordinary people. As adults we interpret illness as impending death from AIDS, we read of young people contemplating suicide, we wonder why the head master is keeping someone behind after school, and we watch Benedict’s sisters learning about Swaziland traditions such as young girls advertising their virginity to the libidinous king in dancing festivals.

“Benedict’s story is a mechanism for the author to pass on more of the harsh realities of life in Swaziland.”

Benedict’s friends aren’t the trendy kids at school but the other misfits and outsiders. There’s the kid with the lisp, the young farmhand and his dog, the elderly Jewish mother of the mixed race couple from whom the family rent the house, and the people who run the local funeral home. But most of all Benedict wants to be friends with a girl at school, a girl who’s not afraid of creepy crawlies, a girl who’s willing to scatter the boys who are torturing a scorpion and rescue the critter but who’s too frightened to tell anyone why she has to stay behind after school.

This is the sequel to Baking Cakes in Kigali which I haven’t yet read so I can’t make any comparisons although I can say that it’s not necessary to have read the first book in order to make sense of the second.

At a superficial level this is a gentle tale of discovery and exploration, a tale of growing up as an outside and having to find your way amongst new people. Benedict is a lovely character who readers can’t help but find endearing but his story is a mechanism for the author to pass on more of the harsh realities of life in Swaziland. We learn about the oddly feudal systems exercised by the royal family, that women have no rights and are considered legally as ‘minors’ just like children, that men can take multiple wives and if a woman disagrees, the man can force her into marriage.

If I had one criticism it would be that there’s not a lot of real plot development. When Hoopoes go to Heaven is more like an account of ‘a year in the life of’ Benedict rather than a story with a strong beginning, middle and end, and at times this lack of progression meant I lacked the sense that I must read on just to see what happened next since most of the time it was pretty much more of the same. It can be a bit plodding in places but it’s still a lovely story which I recommend highly.

When Hoopoes Go to Heaven by Gaile Parkin
Published by Atlantic Books, February 2012
Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy.


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When Hoopoes Go to Heaven
by Gaile Parkin

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Written by koshkha
koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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