An illicit air convoy loaded down with drugs and weapons disappears somewhere over the Sahara. An aid worker watches helplessly as the refugees she is attempting to save are brutally betrayed. A mysterious blue-eyed Englishman sets up a solar farm in the desert, and his attempts to bring free energy to Africa make him the target of callous international businessmen, hell-bent on destroying his vision for a more humane world. And as ruthless jihadists stop at nothing to recover the contents of the missing air convoy, and as millions attempt to escape famine and genocide by crossing the African continent to find a way into Europe, the genii are watching from the skies and the tribal storytellers weave tales that are more truth than imagination.
Our Memory Like Dust is a frustrating book to review, and here’s why: as speculative fiction it is completely on the money - the global refugee crisis, the crazed jihadists, the vicious rivalry to control sustainable energy… although the novel is set a handful of decades into the future, it is both an important commentary on present-day headlines and a prescient warning of what we can expect if our ways do not change.
But the book’s biggest asset – its epic scope - is also its biggest failing. There is just too much going on, including a huge cast of characters who – with only a few exceptions – pop in and out of the story without making any lasting impression.
The two main protagonists start out well enough- the enigmatic blue-eyed Englishman whose solar farm sets everything in motion and the young aid worker with a feline sidekick we first meet free-running through a drowned London - start off as excellent creations. The blue-eyed man is especially instrumental in one of the best (and earliest) twists in the story. But when author Gavin Chait brings them together in a less than convincing facsimile of a romance, it neuters them both. They are suddenly far less interesting to be around, and despite another twist the reader might not see coming, the story never quite recovers from it.
More than that, it’s the lack of tension that really undoes Our Memory Like Dust. Although extremely readable, there is never a true sense of danger or urgency past the first third of the book. Even scenes that should set our pulses racing - and there are several of them - fail to ignite, including a climatic showdown between the heroine and the jihadists which is just plain dull. In fact, the very best part of the book is a touching sequence involving the refugees floating out to sea en masse to defy an international blockade. It is strong writing that shows what Chait can do, but there isn't nearly enough of it.
It’s odd to say that a book with so many flaws is also highly readable, and that even when this reader wasn't clear on what was happening, at no point did he ever consider calling it a day. Chait is a very good writer, juggling several emotionally powerful concepts with the timeless magic of aural storytelling, and his novel makes a genuine and very moving appeal to us all to embrace our humanity. But, unfortunately, Our Memory Like Dust’s faults are too many to wholeheartedly recommend it.
OUR MEMORY LIKE DUST / AUTHOR: GAVIN CHAIT / PUBLISHER: DOUBLEDAY / RELEASE DATE: JULY 27TH