Book review of Elspeth Benton's "Crucial Time".
A novel of international intrigue and adventure!
Before reading this review, you should know that I am Elspeth Benton's nephew.
Elspeth Benton's "Crucial Time".
Crucial Time is set in a modern day California university town. The prologue reveals the central incident of the novel. As an international student from Zimbabwe, named Tapiwa, is waiting in line at a pizzeria with his son Farai a bicyclist careens out of control and strikes Tapiwa, killing him instantly. One of Farai's preschool teachers happens to be on hand, but is unable to console Farai, for he has vanished in the uproar.
The story moves back in time from the opening scene, and details the events leading up to it. This includes the threats from the Zimbabwe government to the politically progressive Tapiwa and his wife Chipo before they move to the United States; and the violence that his friends and family have suffered from the military. The author changes which character is telling the story every few chapters or so, and much of the book is told from the perspective of Hannah Cooper, the California daycare center coordinator where Farai attends preschool once his family gets to the U.S. This shifting viewpoint allows us to get a chance to identify with the different characters, and to see details from various angles. It is well written, and moves along at a good pace throughout. There are thoughtful details, such as the death of rabbit at the daycare center, that resonate with the larger themes of the novel. The dialogue is natural, and the motives and concerns of the characters are believable.
The incident described in the prologue drives much of the narrative in Crucial Time. However, there are many other sub-plots that help to move the action along. Tapiwa starts an affair with Elaine, another student, and it is only the wellbeing of Farai that keeps Tapiwa and Chipo communicating at all. Meanwhile, both Chipo and Tapiwa are under the scrutiny of the Zimbabwe government, which has agents shadowing them overseas. While the narrative crux of the story is surely in the death of Tapiwa, it is not a typical who-dunit. Hannah Cooper is central to the piecing together of bits of evidence, and brings them together for us, in the spirit of getting at the truth. However; the events and motives unfold from different perspectives, and different characters reveal key pieces of information to the reader that aren't ever realized by other characters in the book.
The emotional center of gravity in the book is in the relationship between Chipo and her mother, Ruvimbo; and the bond between Ruvimbo and Farai. It is from this perspective that the climatic moment is told; and that scene is one of emotional healing between grandmother, mother and son. It is a wonderful expression of hope and reconciliation in the middle of despair.
For me, the biggest downside to the novel was that it was driven to
some extent by the fatal incident with Tapiwa; and yet the emotional
fabric of the novel had to do with relationships, especially of that
between Chipo and Ruvimbo. I felt a rich connection with all the other major characters, and while I got under Tapiwa'a skin, so to speak, I wish I'd had a fuller connection with him.
I enjoyed the book very much. All the loose ends got resolved; and as in life, each character bears a certain responsibility for his or her fate. I learned a bit about the life of a day care center teacher and also about Zimbabwe culture while reading the book. It was a tale of political intrigue, danger and love; in all well told and satisfying.