Part of the What We Are Reading Now collection of Book Reviews by friends of Essex Book Festival

A Book Review by Liz Trenow

I love reading (and writing) historical fiction because it can bring history alive in ways that non-fiction can never achieve. It is not slavishly bound to the historical record – usually the record of educated, powerful and usually male characters – and leaving the author free to explore lesser-known aspects of history through fictional or sometimes real but minor characters.

Out of Darkness, Shining Light relates the strange and intriguing story of how the corpse of the Victorian missionary explorer David Livingstone, having died from malaria before finding the source of the Nile, was carried 1,500 miles to the coast ready for transporting back to Britain. It is told through two first-person voices: Livingstone’s loquacious cook Halima and his pompous servant Jacob Wainwright. Through their eyes, we learn so much untold history of colonial Africa, the slave trade and the “Nile madness” that led Livingstone to blunder through the continent propelled by the conviction of his own white superiority.

If this sounds bleak, there’s plenty of humour here too – Halima’s observations of the way women were treated as concubines is pithy and entirely without self-pity. Jacob Wainwright, a Christian convert, is so pompous and self-deluding that you immediately sense the contempt of his fellow travellers. There’s not much plot but this hardly matters because the characters are so lively and powerful they remain with you long afterwards, along with a heightened understanding of a heart of darkness very different from but just as dark as Joseph Conrad’s. An extraordinary, and rewarding read.

Liz Trenow is an Essex Book Festival favourite. Most recently Liz appeared at Firstsite in March, talking about her latest book Under a Wartime Sky.

In Liz’s own words:

“My latest novel, published by Pan Macmillan just before the lockdown was also inspired by a real but little known story: how in 1936 a small team of scientists were locked away in top-secret in a Gothic mansion on the Suffolk coast, charged by Churchill with inventing a ‘death ray’ that would stop the German airforce overwhelming Britain.

I too chose to tell it through the eyes of two contrasting individuals: a shy but brilliant, part-Indian boffin and a young local girl employed as a kitchen assistant at the Manor. As always, the narrative is driven by real people and real events – I was helped enormously by the Bawdsey Radar Trust which has an oral history library of people involved at the time. Bawdsey is a very special place with an intriguing history, and I hope you enjoy reading this novel as much as I loved researching and writing it.”

Liz Trenow is a former journalist and now a best-selling historical novelist. Her work has been translated into eleven languages and is published all over the world. She lives in Colchester and her 300 year silk weaving heritage has inspired several of her novels. You can find out more about her books at www.liztrenow.com, at facebook.com/liztrenow, or on Twitter @liztrenow

Read other book reviews in the What We Are Reading Now collection.