Only in a romance, I suspect, does long distance pose no particular hurdle in a bi-continental relationship. Fortunately for the hero and heroine of Midnight Skies, a contemporary romance by Crystal Barouche, the logistical challenges of their incipient romance are neutralised by opportunities and coincidences created by work, fame, and wealth. The ease with which they are thrown into contact resembles that of people who live in the same town and share acquaintances. Luckily for my ability to suspend disbelief, that is where the fantasy ended and the reality of international couplehood took over.
Risen from the ashes of civil war, Zimbabwean Jonathan Mokane operates an internationally recognised safari business. An engagement with the Smithsonian Institute in the USA lands him as a stand-in guest on The Natural World, a television programme hosted by Sela Clay. Their on-screen sparring raises the interest of Sela’s family, whose ancestors hailed from the area of Victoria Falls, and of her bosses, impressed by the sudden upsurge in viewer ratings. Soon Sela is on her way to Zimbabwe with a television crew to film a segment about Jonathan’s wildlife safari.
Sela considers Jonathan arrogant and he believes her to be spoilt, yet as they are forced to work together they develop an appreciation for each other’s deeper qualities, which gradually fuels attraction. But Sela has fought too hard for her career to give everything up for an uncertain romance with a man who doesn’t understand her background any more than she can share his views, shaped by traditions and challenges she, in turn, knows nothing about. Leaving Zimbabwe and Jonathan behind, she thinks both are a closed chapter.
Life has taught Jonathan to believe in second chances, perhaps even in third chances. He realises it will take more than attraction to make a relationship with an independent career woman like Sela work. But when she suffers a professional setback, which tears them further apart than ever before, even Jonathan runs out of answers. Only their shared love of the wild remains – but is it enough to salvage a common future?
Last February I put Midnight Skies on hold after bland writing and a self-righteous heroine eroded my initial curiosity about the handling of cultural conflict and the Zimbabwean landscape on the eve of the country’s headline-making land reforms (Barouche’s novel was published by Kensington Arabesque in 1997). In June I was on a rare contemporary romance glom and gave Midnight Skies a second chance. I now discovered that I had abandoned the book just as the storytelling was about to switch gears. Although I never overcame my irritation with the behaviour of the singularly inept heroine and the story gives no indication of the social changes around the corner, I did derive occasional enjoyment from the awareness of relationship challenges presented by divergent cultural perspectives, settings that include a luxurious wildlife safari (caviar, brandy in crystal glasses, foods reflecting Zimbabwe’s British colonial past as Rhodesia) and trips to landmark localities, and a forthright, principled hero. As regards the prose, often trite, at other times exhibiting random flashes of evocative imagery, its unevenness goes hand in hand with writing style that seemed a cobbled-together patchwork of originally disparate story segments.
After an abrasive introduction due to scenes pitting the hero and heroine competitively against each other, Jonathan Mokane turned out to be really nice hero material, coming into his own once the story shows him in his home environment. Unlike Sela he has his wits about him and knows what he is talking about. Competent, sharp-witted, thoughtful, and affectionate, he is interestingly rounded and grew more appealing the more I learnt about him.
The opposite was true of the heroine. Despite efforts by the author to elicit sympathy for Sela by showing the odds she has had to battle as a woman and an African American, her personality rubbed me the wrong way, making it a struggle for me to empathise with her disorientation in the, to her, alien environment of Zimbabwe. This is a character who hosts a nature programme and is even sent on assignment to Africa - where she thinks she’ll find coyotes and tigers, and goes jogging, alone and unarmed, through the bush even after seeing a local pick up his rifle as a precaution when simply stepping out of a car for a few seconds - but who proceeds to take up public, international championship of a cause she has failed to put the most basic research into. When this astounding lack of professional standards backfires, she refuses to acknowledge her own culpability. A passive-aggressive type, she continuously drifts into problematic situations then self-righteously blames others for messes caused by her own unpreparedness or incompetence, not to say stupidity. This, too, is a heroine to whom it would never occur to pick up the phone and dial the hero or say what is in her heart unless he did it first, all the while fretting that he is not making his feelings clear when in fact she is the one equivocating every time he tries or actually does. Oh, the job troubles? Spoiler: Not to worry, a famous motion picture director is already knocking on her door, keen to sign her on as his wildlife expert on an epic set in Zimbabwe. End of spoiler.
Perhaps the most basic reason Sela failed for me is that she seems thinly conceived as a character. Yes, she is given thematic issues but somehow these don’t seem to integrate with her personality into a fully fledged character. She comes across as a type. It can be observed, for example, in the author’s insistence on showing how much rich and famous African Americans admire Sela. In fact, this emphasis on recognition and being desired grew to almost disturbing proportions. There is relentless namedropping to establish her (self-)importance. Oprah Winfrey personally calls Sela to secure an interview after Sela informs Oprah’s assistant she will have to check her schedule first (Oprah: “Miss Sela, you know you got us all envious”, p.107). Music legends and political influencers are equally dazzled: “Jesse Jackson was smiling at her; Quincy Jones called, ‘Talk to you later’ (p.142). Carol Moseley Brown tells Sela “You’re doing a great job”, p.106. Sela even gives a sold-out lecture at the “University in Harare” (the University of Zimbabwe?), although (then) Prime Minister Mugabe’s assistants, who fail to give her access to Mugabe, “did nothing except ask for her autograph, sniffing around her worse than American groupies” (p.123). A clear clue to the author's intentions is given during said lecture, at which members of the audience ask Sela about being black in a society in which blacks are a discriminated-against minority. I wish the author had chosen to drive the point home by less clumsy means.
The male cover model does not match the description of Jonathan Mokane as “plum-black” or, for that matter, “a head taller than anyone else (pp. 7, 43). While this is a common enough occurrence in romance publishing the discrepancy is noteworthy on the cover of a romance in which cultural conflicts are thoughtfully given central importance and the matter of skin colour is introduced as one of the sources of disharmony in the inter-family relations. Whatever frictions and obstacles their differing cultural perspectives and expectations cause, Sela and Jonathan derive only pleasure from each others looks and bodies. Yet when Sela confidently comments to Jonathan’s mother that, “No one can really understand everything about the other person. Especially from one country to another. But we are all blacks. In that we are equal”, Mrs Mokane disagrees. “‘Americans are not black. They are light as the sands of Kalahari. [Zimbabweans] are black.’” Sela is shocked. “It was the first time she’d ever been held accountable for her color. At home whites had excluded her, not blacks” (p. 200). (While degrees of inclusiveness among African Americans is not considered in the book, the members of Sela’s rather Cosbyesque family do respond in a variety of ways to Jonathan’s nationality and his relationship with Sela.)
The dissonances and hurt feelings arising out of cultural divergence generally ring true. The different expectations their backgrounds cause Sela and Jonathan to bring to the relationship is probably most prominently illustrated in the conflict centring on the Zimbabwean tradition of lobola or a bride price. Its offensiveness to Sela and her family seems related to the idea of buying and selling humans as slaves, but since the Clays refuse to engage with Jonathan in a dialogue about the custom, this interesting, concrete example of a cultural tradition becoming a relationship issue is unfortunately squandered on huffing instead of examined for its significance in Zimbabwean society.
The Zimbabwe of Midnight Skies is a de-politicised setting, so if the idea of (non-shooting) safaris and a bit of cultural travel intrigues then here is a safely romantic opportunity for scenic armchair travel. As I read I gained the impression that the author must have visited the country in person or read multiple memoirs because the details about safari camp life are abundant and specific, including names of flora and fauna. (It turns out the author had indeed experienced a Zimbabwean safari a few years prior to the book’s release; see the link about the author below, in the additional note). Although the Zimbabwean landscape shown is a very touristy idea of an African idyll, enhanced with the obligatory dash of adventure from the behaviour of predatory wildlife, it is employed for another purpose than simply as an exotic foil for the romance. Elephants play a role in highlighting the divide between Sela and Jonathan's cultures, being animals that are viewed differently by locals than they are by tourists - a bit like the kangaroos of Australia - and thus setting Jonathan and Sela on a collision course (link is a spoiler).
The amount of pleasure I derived from Midnight Skies did not necessarily compensate for the work, including overcoming bouts of tedium, I had to put into my reading in trying to finish the book. Nevertheless, Midnight Skies is an ambitious multi-cultural romance, and for that I must commend the author. It is a romance that tries hard to say something meaningful even as it entertains. Not every book I read can claim as much.
Additional note: considering some of the concerns voiced in a Dear Author comment thread about ethnic diversity in romance this past June, it did feel like an ironic twist when I discovered, once I began collecting links for this post, that the author of Midnight Skies, having successfully submitted her story to Kensington’s African-American romance imprint, Arabesque, is in fact Caucasian, albeit one apparently socially engaged in issues of equal rights, including race.
(Kensington/Pinnacle Books/Arabesque paperback, 1997, p. 73):
“She was shaking with emotion and grateful when the segment ended.
Putting his hand briefly over hers, Jonathan asked, ‘You okay?’
‘Fine,’ she said. She wasn’t sure. An elemental something had happened. She had seen life and then death, and she had felt a basic elemental attraction for a man with whom she had little in common. What did he know of mailmen and Pullman porters and women who worked two jobs in upwardly mobile America? And yet she felt elated, high.
When they were back at the camp again, Jonathan stirred the fire until the ghosts of the logs glowed, silvery-red. Sparks floated up into the suddenly dark sky, the moon hidden behind a bank of clouds.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Sela murmured, sipping the brandy Matui passed on a teakwood tray, crystal snifters in the wilderness. Jonathan’s shoulder touched hers as he pointed out a shooting star. She felt the heat of him, his breath like warm licorice tinged with mint.
‘I’m glad you like it.’
Such simple words, but it felt as if they had exchanged monumental disclosures. Was it because her heart was doing strange things whenever he was near? Or was it this wild primitive feeling that the world had stopped, returned to a more peaceful, if elemental, time? As the glowing logs slowly died, the smell of dead ash rose, and she reluctantly said good night to the others.
Jonathan walked with her to her chalet, the rifle cradled in his arm.
‘Aside from the lion getting familiar with me, it was a great first day,’ she said when they stood at the entrance to her room.”
Romances of related interest: Today's companion post about Chancing Faith by Empi Baryeh, set in Ghana, also contains notes about a few other contemporary romances that bridge Africa and North America.