This reading group guide for Out of Darkness, Shining Lightincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land.
So begins Petina Gappah’s powerful novel of exploration and adventure in nineteenth-century Africa—the captivating story of the loyal men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone’s body, his papers and maps, fifteen hundred miles across Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there. Narrated by two of his attendants, Halima, the doctor’s sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, Livingstone’s rigidly pious secretary, the story winds through the continent in the time just before its colonization by European powers.
With an unforgettable cast of characters and a powerful journey of struggle and perseverance, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reenvisions a historical event through the eyes of those often written out of the story. Sweeping, profound, and deeply funny, this is a story that encompasses all of the hypocrisy of slavery and colonization—the hypocrisy of humanity—while celebrating resilience, loyalty, and love.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The very beginning of the novel is narrated by a chorus of voices, the voices of all of David Livingstone’s companions, who point out that the act of fidelity they showed to Livingstone—carrying his body and papers home—unintentionally enabled some of the violence of European imperialism. In beginning Out of Darkness, Shining Light in this way, what does Gappah hope to accomplish?
2. Halima thinks often of her childhood and her mother, a concubine of the Liwali of Zanzibar. How does she compare her present circumstances with her life as a child?
3. Describe Halima’s relationship with Bwana Daudi. What does she do after his death? How does the rest of his retinue react to his death?
4. How does Halima feel about Susi? About Amoda?
5. How does Halima understand Bwana Daudi’s “Nile madness” (page 51)? How do you understand it?
6. What are Bwana Daudi’s feelings about slavery? What does Halima, and the rest of his retinue, think about his position on this matter?
7. Whose narration do you prefer, Halima’s or Jacob Wainwright’s? Why is that?
8. Jacob believes that he is a “natural leader of men” (page 112). How do you think the rest of the companions see him?
9. How did Jacob reach the Nassick school? How did he leave? What are his hopes for the rest of his life?
10. Jacob believes Halima is “empty-headed” (page 132), and in fact has many disparaging thoughts about most of his fellows. Why does he regard them so negatively?
11. Jacob writes that “woman is . . . how sin came to the world” (page 149) and that he would like to send all the women away, but later on the journey he falls in love with Ntaoéka—orchestrated by Chirango—and is quickly and devastatingly disappointed. How does he react to this?
12. On their travels, the companions encounter “bodies tied to trees, slave sticks, skeletons” (page 213). Each member of the retinue has a different history with and experience of slavery; describe some of them. How does the novel engage with the practice of slavery?
13. Chirango attempts to torture a hyena to death, in Jacob’s telling, before he is stopped by Susi. What does this reveal about his character?
14. Jacob describes manumission to Halima, reassuring her—though not with much kindness—that she is a free woman. Why did Halima not know this before? What must have this news meant to her?
15. Chirango reveals that he is responsible for the deaths of Losi, Amoda, John Wainwright, Kaniki, and Misozi. Why did he admit it? Why did he do it? What is his punishment? And what do you make of this revelation?
16. How do Halima and Jacob’s narrations reveal their biases, the complexities of their relationships, their histories—and even their hypocrisies?
17. Where do Halima and Jacob end up? How does the particular point in history in which they live shape their experiences after their travels with Livingstone?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read Petina Gappah’s earlier works, An Elegy for Easterly and The Book of Memory.
Petina Gappah is an award-winning and widely translated Zimbabwean writer. She is the author of two novels, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, The Book of Memory, and two short story collections, Rotten Row and An Elegy for Easterly. Her work has also been published in, among others, The New Yorker, Der Spiegel, The Financial Times, and the Africa Report. For many years, Petina worked as an international trade lawyer at the highest levels of diplomacy in Geneva where she advised more than seventy developing countries from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America on trade law and policy. Petina has also been a DAAD Writing Fellow in Berlin, an Open Society Fellow and a Livingstone Scholar at Cambridge University. She has law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University in Austria, and the University of Zimbabwe. She currently lives in Harare.
A Lit Hub,Millions, and Buzzfeed Most Anticipated Book
“Petina Gappah lists at least 30 books in the bibliography of her scrupulously researched new novel. This being the case, one imagines the author might well be dealing with subject matter that leaves precious little room for her to reinvent, to present us with a new view of a man whose story has been so thoroughly picked over. However, Gappah has chosen an ingenious way to approach Livingstone’s life: She focuses on his death…After all, the real heroes of this carefully crafted novel are Halima and Wainwright and the other Africans history has hitherto condemned to suffer in silence. It is to the novel’s credit that after 150 years we can now hear their voices.” —The New York Times Book Review
"David Livingstone, the 19th-century Scottish missionary who set out to find the source of the Nile, casts a long shadow over East Africa, and Gappah explores his legacy in her new novel. Narrated by Halima, Livingstone’s cook and slave, and Jacob, a pious freed slave, as Livingstone’s corpse is taken to the coast of Africa, the story offers a fresh look at the enduring history of colonialism." —The New York Times, 17 New Books to Watch For in September
“Based on Livingstone’s journals and narrated by his gossipy cook and a freedman with a messiah complex, this textured novel illuminates the agonies of colonialism and blind loyalty—Conrad’s heart of darkness in reverse.” —O, the Oprah Magazine
"Petina Gappah’s work of historical fiction delves into the story of two African servants of famed 19th-century explorer David Livingstone. After Livingstone’s death, the pair are among those who transport his body, and his notes, 1,000 miles to ensure the body’s safe return to England. The novel glows with the insightful voices of the two servants and the strength of their devotion." —Christian Science Monitor, Best Books of September
"Perhaps no story was as ripe for the Wide Sargasso Sea treatment (the revision of a classic by marginalized voices) as the tale of missionary David Livingstone’s death in Africa. In contrasting styles, the Zimbabwean novelist lets two characters describe their trek across Africa with Livingstone’s body, beautifully complicating the narrative." —Vulture, Best and Biggest Books to Read This Fall
"A rich, vivid, and addictive book filled with memorably drawn characters. This is a humane, riveting, epic novel that spotlights marginalized historical voices.” —Kirkus, starred
"Gappah decolonizes the legend of Dr. Livingstone by turning the tale inside out, giving voice to those who are overlooked in the official narratives. The result is an indictment of the legacy of slavery and colonialism that is also an engrossing adventure story.” —Library Journal, starred
"Riveting ... a deeply layered exploration of courage, sorrow, and resilience, culminating in a revelatory quest and an entracing vision." —Booklist
"Readers who enjoy expedition travelogues or smartly drawn characters will appreciate Gappah’s winning novel.” —Publishers Weekly
“Engrossing, beautiful, and deeply imaginative, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, is a novel that lends voice to those who appeared only as footnotes in history, yet whose final, brave act of loyalty and respect changed the course of it. An incredible and important book by a masterful writer.” —Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing
“Petina Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light describes a world on the cusp of change. Her narrators, Halima and Jacob, both former slaves—along with a cohort of sixty-some Africans and Arabs—carry a dead muzungu (white person) for nine months across impossible 19th-century African terrain. While they ultimately reach their destination, delivering a wizened body to the awaiting arms of their future colonizers, the greater catastrophe is still to come. Petina Gappah knows what she writes; her historical and cultural insights add texture and veracity to every page. A powerful novel, beautifully told, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reveals as much about the present circumstances as the past that helped create them.” —Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing
“Mixing painstaking research with a formidable imagination, Petina Gappah resurrects the brave, misguided, heroic, and ill-starred party who hauled the dried-up corpse of Dr. David Livingstone across 1,000 miles of African interior to the Indian Ocean. Her narrators, a hilarious cook named Halima and a sanctimonious Christian named Jacob, cut a swath through a continent at the crossroads of colonization, superstition, religion and slavery, illuminating the contradictions inherent in every life. This is a beautiful novel.” —Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See
“A sweeping epic that is also startlingly intimate, Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a revelation. In luminous prose, Petina Gappah gives voice to people silenced by history, allowing them the full scope of their humanity, from petty gossip to self-righteous evangelism to romantic longings and dreams for the future. She grapples with what it means to explore other cultures, to seek answers to the questions ‘what if?’ and ‘what else?’ In doing so, she holds a funhouse mirror up to colonialist narratives like Heart of Darkness, revealing their distortions.” —Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train