It is hard to know where to start with Mortals, as it is a book of epic proportions. Set in Botswana, in the early 1990s as the Cold War is drawing to a close, the novel traverses the innermost thoughts of Ray Finch, a Milton Scholar, secondary school teacher, and bit part CIA operative. Norman Rush invites us into the world of sleepy Gaborone, transplanting the reader into this relative backwater of global subterfuge. However, if you are looking for a spy thriller set in Southern Africa, then this book is certainly not for you. Rather Mortals is an uncompromising assessment of love, jealousy, marriage, loss and infidelity. The book, narrated entirely from the perspective of Ray Finch, takes us deep on an exploration of his psychological state of mind, and offers an analysis of his increasingly unhappy marriage to Iris. The storyline is underpinned by Ray’s reflections and ruminations, and the reader is taken on a journey into his innermost thoughts.
The first half of the book is set in Gaborone, with the emphasis on Ray and Iris’s life in the city, his cover job in the school, and provides an insight into his role with the CIA. Here, we are introduced to the inner workings of Ray’s mind, as Rush sets about dissecting the marriage of Ray and Iris, piece by piece; even the most mundane aspects of their lives are analysed and detailed. From the very beginning, Ray is depicted as self-centred, and within this one-sided narration of his life, we see his ideas about a ‘perfect’ marriage being quickly replaced by a deep paranoia and jealousy of his wife; this fear and anxiety generated by a web of conspiracies, linked to his CIA background, provides an important backdrop to the story.
Rush is clearly interested in how people speak, not only to each other, but also our internal monologue. In places the book adopts a conversational approach to the narrative, detailing the dialogue between the characters and the subsequent internal analysis / monologue of these exchanges. It is an unusual writing style, and one which attempts to recreate the complex nature of Ray’s thinking. However, the effect achieves the exact opposite; Mortals is often ponderous and at times difficult to read. There is simply too much description about very little. The outcome is a slow and difficult book to read.
Mortals gathers speed in the second half, with tension unfolding more dramatically. Ray is sent to the Kalahari Desert in the north of Botswana to report upon a rebellion in the region, where he is subsequently drawn into a guerrilla conflict; captured by South African funded rebels; and embarks on a daring prison break. These episodes shine an interesting light on the activities of the CIA, and the damaging legacies of apartheid in Southern Africa. This is where the novel comes into its own, offering some insightful social and political observations covering themes such as white expatriate life in Africa; the role of the west on the continent; the changing political realities with the passing of the Cold War; and the state of Southern Africa. The final section of the book, following some dramatic events, prompt a bout of soul searching from Ray and a revaluation of his life’s direction.
The hype around Mortals, Rush’s third book, has been considerable, and I was eagerly looking forward to committing myself to the story (the novel is a mammoth 715 pages long). However, I was left largely disappointed not only by the way it was written, but the story itself. The book is interminably slow, and only through sheer perseverance, did I reach the parts where the narrative begins to gather pace. Furthermore, the areas that deserved more attention such as America’s position in Botswana are somewhat lacking, and the overall story did not draw me into the story as expected.