A Review of Jane Labous’ The Chameleon Girl by Adaobi Nnadozie
The Chameleon Girl by Jane Labous is a captivating novel that delves into the life of Soumaya Drame, an African-English woman grappling with her complex dual identity and embarking on a profound quest to uncover the truth about her parents and herself.
Soumaya’s transformative journey begins when she and her fiancé, Ben, embark on a journey to Senegal in search of her mother, Pearl. As the narrative unfolds, it gradually unravels like an intricately crafted puzzle, allowing readers to deeply engage and personally experience the story. Labous skillfully weaves together various points of view, creating a tapestry of emotions and perspectives.
During their expedition, Soumaya and Ben encounter Aziz, an enigmatic photographer who purposefully entangles himself in their lives for his hidden motives. As he assists them in their search, Aziz veils his true identity in mystery. Throughout the journey, Soumaya candidly shares her profound sense of displacement, recounting the multitude of reasons why she never truly felt at home in her island village of Ngor or even in England, where she possesses a job, friends, and a life with Ben.
Although Soumaya can't discern the exact reason why her mother left, she strongly believes that her father, Al, is to blame. She speculates that he harbors a secret in Ngor, which has caused him to frequently visit there and be emotionally distant in England. Al, devastated by his wife's absence, initially resigns himself to fate, relying on Allah and sinking into a state of depression and prayer.
“Labous skillfully weaves together various points of view, creating a tapestry of emotions and perspectives.”
Meanwhile, Pearl, Soumaya's mother, appears engrossed in writing a memoir that retells her life and love with Al. She exhibits a sense of remorse for her choices. Additionally, it becomes evident that she is entangled with someone who wishes her harm. Though this person poses as a caregiver and provider, they resent Pearl deeply for circumstances beyond her control, of which she was unaware.
As Soumaya meets various family members, her suspicions about her father intensify, as she finds herself confronted with numerous unanswered questions. Unfortunately, nobody seems willing to assist her in finding the answers. Throughout this turmoil, her fiancé struggles to find his place in this aspect of her life, leading to jealousy regarding her bond with Aziz, who seems to understand and connect with her more effortlessly. Soumaya's suggestion of prolonging their stay in Senegal only worsens the situation.
With too many questions on her mind, an elderly lady dressed in old-fashioned gowns who she catches looking at her from a distance and always seeming to lurk around her makes her look paranoid to the people around her. Eventually, Soumaya decides to follow the lady to her residence.
At the time, Al reaches a turning point and resolves to fight for his love. He embarks on a journey to Senegal to reunite with his wife and clarify matters with Soumaya. Ultimately, a series of unfortunate events place Pearl's life in jeopardy, but Al arrives in the nick of time to rescue her.
Although the clarity Al provides spins Soumaya’s whole life around, she’s also able to piece things for herself and is at peace enough to define herself.
“The book’s strength lies in its remarkably human portrayal of its characters.”
The Chameleon Girl delves into a wide array of themes, including fate, religion, love (including unrequited love), obsessions, loss, race, and class.
Initially, I approached this book with some trepidation, as stories that traverse different racial backgrounds aren’t typically my preference. However, this novel genuinely captivated me. I found myself eagerly turning the pages to better understand the characters, their pasts, and the motives behind their choices. It provided me with a glimpse into the lives of those residing in the bustling capital city of Dakar in Senegal, as well as the tranquil island village of Ngor. The narrative explored the profound impact of living in such unique places and times, where opportunities were limited or non-existent, and how these circumstances reverberated throughout individuals' lives.
The book’s strength lies in its remarkably human portrayal of its characters. It delves into their vulnerabilities, intentions (both virtuous and flawed), and diverse personalities. It skillfully demonstrates how one person’s choices can ripple through the lives of others, affecting not only their contemporaries but also future generations. While there have been numerous stories depicting the experiences of biracial individuals and their unique struggles, The Chameleon Girl is a breath of fresh air.
Adaobi S Nnadozie is a reader who side hustles as a nurse. She writes satirical pieces about society, culture, the patriarchy, and dreams of the comfiest library with the finest books to call home.
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