The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

andrew This is the last day of my blog-week and I would like to thank all those who are still doggedly reading it and those that have commented. And very special thanks to those who, at my personal pleading, have restrained themselves from commenting – you know who you are, only one day left to control yourselves, you can do it.


I’m sitting at my desk looking out at the garden which is in full summer flower thanks to – with a little help from the Almighty – the skills of Marietta, my wife. The truth is that I’ve rather exhausted my blogging repertoire and would like to go out and enjoy the last rays (or rather, first rays, here in the midlands) of summer sunshine; and you should probably be doing the same, so I’ll keep this short.


I’m often asked, sometimes asked – well, was asked once, what type of book is The Ghosts of Eden? Is it a thriller – should beta-blockers be taken before opening? Is it a romance – will my mascara be ruined?  Is it a crime novel – must I look for clues? Is it humour – will it make me laugh out loud on a train? That would be embarrassing. Is it literary fiction – will I look erudite if I pretend I’m reading it? Is it a coming of age novel – is there a Kevin in it? Is it horror – must I only read it during daylight hours?


I like reading novels with a little of all the above and I suppose The Ghosts of Eden has some elements of some of those. It’s probably a little difficult to place in the middle of a particular genre. That might present a problem to booksellers: what shelf do they put it on? In Leicester: local author, I guess. Elsewhere? The shelf reserved exclusively for Picnic Publications of course!


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll sign off and, as they say in southern Africa, have a sundowner on the stoep, and so should you. Have a good weekend and get ready to welcome Ben Beazley and his historical detective novel, Crooked Mile.

The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

Bahima people - Uganda

This photo was taken over fifty years ago and shows a Bahima woman from western Uganda sitting next to her milk pots. The staple diet of the Bahima people in those days was milk from the cattle that their lives revolved around. A man might drink up to eight litres a day – that’s about fourteen pints of full cream milk for those of us who still get milk delivered to our doorsteps in glass bottles. The cattle were also bled in order to make a delicious soup.

 Pictures such as the one above are favourites of coffee table books showing ‘vanishing worlds’ and usually depict white clay and ochre painted bodies, long-shutter photos of dancing by firelight, along with a few naked bosoms. A brief digression here: a friend visited a remote place a long time ago and on meeting the women of the village at the market had her breasts thoroughly palpated to assess her fecundity. Don’t try that in your local supermarket.

Whilst coffee table books are attention grabbing in showing the diversity of human cultural life, I have often wondered what it really feels like to be one of those dancers, what was going on elsewhere in their lives, who was annoying whom, what crises were going on in their lives, what hopes they held. My characters Zachye, Felice, Kabutiiti and Stanley, are Bahima. Can a writer from one culture really get inside the head of a child from a different culture, in a different era? We absorb the intricacies of our own culture, its viewpoints, what it takes note of, the way it sees the world, so that it heavily colours how we see. How can a writer see with a different eye? How can the writer be credible? The writer Metter Newth has pointed out that this is a problem shared by all writers writing outside their own personal (private) experience.

For The Ghosts of Eden I started with the premise that everyone, everywhere, in any era, has common human feelings: apprehension, pride, caution, jealousy, love, contentment; we share common predicaments even if they occur within a different cultural world. So the reader, although seeing in a photo a person made mysterious by a white shroud, squatting outside a grass house surrounded by unfamiliar objects, can find themselves thinking: yes, I’m rooting for them, because I’ve also felt those emotions, experienced those dilemmas. If the writer has done their job, the reader can make a ‘leap of empathy’.

Then there’s research to try to recreate the cultural environment, a voyage of discovery that is fraught with the danger that the sources may have been written by people of one’s own culture, and so be selective in their observations. Searching the memoirs and memories of surviving members of the tradition is a necessity but oral literature also helps. In the case of the Bahima this included their poems. These poems are in the form of the ancient traditions of heroic epic literature – particular cattle-raiding, found also in the Greek Iliad, the Irish The Cattle-Raid of Cooley and also texts from India. In my novel, the ‘heroic recitations’ of the Bahima provide a means for one of the characters to cross from the old world of their childhood to the new world of their adulthood.

So a writer trying to write about a culture far removed from their own must use universal human emotions and be inquisitive about the culture they are attempting to show. At the very least, writing about another culture should alter perceptions of that culture in the writer’s culture. It should also inform in an entertaining way (a novel should not be an anthropological treatise).

I’m off to have a glass of milk now. I think I’ll skip the blood soup.

The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

I asked the herbalist at this stall at a market in southern Africa what he could recommend me. He looked me up and down – with what I realised later was pity – pointed to a jar, and said, ‘This one.’
‘And how will it help me?’
Without hesitation he said, ‘It’ll make you become a strong man.’
The rest is history.

Writing and practicing medicine can look horribly incompatible. By that I don’t mean that it should never be done simultaneously, like cleaning your teeth and kissing, or that if you practice one, you should not attempt the other – there are many well-known novelists, ancient and modern, who’ve combined both. I mean that they require two polar opposite forms of brain activity. Medical work requires a flitting, rapid, decision-making type of thinking. It requires moving, alas too quickly, from one patient to another on the wards or in a surgery, stethoscope on a chest one moment, phone to the ear the next, fingers on the computer keyboard the next, mouth to the Dictaphone the next, then your pen scrawling on a form, then a hand in a glove…, then a needle in a vein (apologies – I hadn’t intended to make you feel queasy). Writing, in contrast, requires stillness, a space for drifting thought, what Doris Lessing calls ‘that empty space, which should surround you when you write … into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words …’

However, as in other areas of life, one endeavour can inform the other. There’s the useful insider’s knowledge that any writer has from their other work – yes, there’s some medicine in The Ghosts of Eden although it’s mainly confined to an emergency operation where the surgeon has got more on his mind than the patient – but an awareness of the importance of storytelling can also inform the practice of medicine.

When we fall ill or life treats us rough, certain events occur, we take some sort of action, we feel emotion. But when we tell others, and ourselves, about it at a later time, we construct a story which is selective – we choose which events, which actions, and which feelings, will go into the story. We create a narrative. Psychologists and academics in medicine have long been interested in this – they talk about narrative based medicine. There are people who write dissertations on it. Narrative, they say, provides meaning, context and perspective on our situation. Sustaining fictions (the word fiction being used in the sense of a story rather then a falsehood) underlie the way we present our symptoms or problem to the doctor or therapist. Knowing this, the doctor can see their task as making a contribution to the patient’s narrative plot; a contribution that we, as patients, will find useful. The doctor can become a co-author, an assistant autobiographer, helping us to re-invent our story, to reframe it. The doctor can also tease out the wider story; find the fuller narrative. We all know that stories can accommodate suffering and difficulties, giving them meaning, but if the story is allowed to become fixed then we, as patients, can become trapped within the narrative. A rigid story can close off choices relating to how we react, what we do about our situation. However, with help to reformulate the narrative, we may emerge in the story as a principal character who has found some peace of mind, or is vindicated, or has renewed determination, or perhaps is just heroically coping or, not infrequently, battling through to a cure.

Narrative may have importance beyond our immediate situation. Many have suggested that narrative is fundamental to who we are. Oliver Sacks writes, ‘We have each of us a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs, and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identity.’ Personhood and narrative are inseparable. Jeanette Winterton wrote recently ‘it’s better to read ourselves as fictional narratives, instead of a bloated CV of chronological events.’ A musician (the subject of a BBC documentary) had a brain haemorrhage that deprived him of the ability to remember anything except the previous few seconds. He’s lived a constant battle to discover who he is. He’s a man with no internal narrative.

This is all getting away from The Ghosts of Eden (for masterful digressions see Michael Bollen’s blog below); or perhaps not: schoolboy Michael’s, and herd boy Zachye’s internal childhood narratives, as far as they are concerned, end up destroyed. To achieve redemption/peace of mind they have to re-write their narrative, attempt to reformulate their story to encompass the before and the after.

Hope that doesn’t sound too abstruse – fortunately stories can also be read as entertaining and distracting yarns, although never when you’re a doctor in the consulting room.

Tomorrow: blood and milk for breakfast.

The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

H-M stanley

 This portrait is not of myself (although it’s an improvement). It’s Henry Morton Stanley and the reason it’s there is that herd boy Stanley, one of the principal characters in The Ghosts of Eden, was named by his father after the controversial explorer, for reasons that are revealed in the book.


Yesterday I found myself writing what might have looked like a rather bloated back-cover blurb for The Ghosts of Eden … which got me thinking about back-covers. I’m as suspicious as anyone else of those book-jacket pitches and recommendations – ‘if your life isn’t changed for ever by this book, you’re a corpse,’ sounds like a threat – and yet, when browsing the shelves, short of speed reading (and here one is likely to end up with the same superficial impression that Woody Allen had when he speed-read War and Peace: ‘it involves Russia’), there’s not much choice but to turn the book over and see what lavish adjectives the publisher has coughed up. Don’t misunderstand me: I’ll strangle myself with my stethoscope if the blurb on the back of my own novel isn’t purple with hyperbole – Picnic please note! – although Chris Power, writing at

says that for him the most useful back-cover text is a quote from the manuscript itself. To paraphrase him: it’s not the setting, it’s not who it’s about, it’s not even the plot, it’s about being stimulated by the writing.



Many years ago there was less back-cover lather: a simple statement on the genre, what to expect in general, and perhaps a straightforward opinion on who would find this novel of interest. I’m not suggesting that opinion was quite as forthright as Dorothy Parkers’ ‘This is not a book that should be cast aside lightly, it should be thrown with great force’, but there was a little more restraint and honesty, which allowed the potential reader to form a less suspicious opinion on the contents. For example, there’s a book, long out of print, titled In Search of Paradise aimed at retirees looking for an Eden. The back cover reads: ‘Much of the book is written in his usual flippant way, but …’


That brings me, by a curiously circuitous route, to one of the triggers for the setting, that Aigen asked about yesterday, for The Ghosts of Eden. The place, in all the world, that the author of In Search of Paradise judged (and I can detect no flippancy here) most akin to his idea of paradise was an island on a small lake in southern Uganda. Carried over the water in a dug-out canoe, the island appeared ‘through a light opalescent haze. The house was there, beautifully shabby, as though it was a natural part of the island. The green lawns, cropped and velvety, swept down to the water’s edge. It was like seeing a ghost, so faithfully did it tally with my dream picture.’ The island happened to belong to my grandparents (who started a leprosy treatment centre on another island – but that’s a different story). I remember the surging strokes of the oarsmen and the rhythmic splash and suck of the paddles when I visited the island as a small child.


So I too was entranced, but not just by my grandparents’ island but by the dramatic landscape of volcanoes, lakes and mountains. The eastern arm of the Great Rift Valley is well known – think Out of Africa, White Mischief – but the western limb that divides the savannahs of East Africa from the great forests of the Congo basin is less frequented, but even more spectacular, and was the scene for the search for the source of the Nile by those iron-jawed Victorian explorers.  


I always knew I wanted to set a novel there but a big landscape requires a big story with strong themes so The Ghosts of Eden has been a long time in gestation while I’ve mused on the characters and their lives. Most stories worth reading, and worth writing, attempt to open new windows on universal human experiences such as loss, the struggle to survive it, the courage necessary to overcome, or the sacrifice that might be necessary to find love. I can only hope that mine is not too many thousands of miles away from that type of story. Similar themes are found in stories from every culture throughout history. They also find their way into the story of our own lives. Which, in this meandering blog, leads into the stories we present to doctors. Something about that tomorrow.


The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

cattle and boysHello, I’m Andrew Sharp, and am next to walk the plank into the Picnic blogosphere. My first novel, The Ghosts of Eden, will be out with Picnic’s 2009 list.

Let’s jump straight into the world of The Ghosts of Eden. We’ll start in the 1950s, two hundred years on from the grime, pox and mud of Caroline’s intriguing novel, Kill-Grief. Go south to picture yourself under a wide blue sky in the grasslands of East Africa. Sit yourself on some rocky vantage point, feel the warmth of the equatorial sun on the back of your neck and hear the susurrus scratchings of insects in the dry grass. Nearby, you see two young herd boys tending their father’s long-horned cattle. It’s a way of life their ancestors have followed for generations. The boys are playing, twisting strands of grass to make toy cows and bulls, but every now and then they look up and call out the name of one of their charges. The cow raises its head or moos.

On the horizon, way beyond the boys, you see a column of dust that marks the passage of a vehicle on a new road. The boys turn to look and you hear them murmuring to each other; you sense the younger boy’s excitement, but the older boy turns away. You can see his eyes. There is fear, as if he has seen a portent.

Now you’re spirited away just over the horizon to hill country where you find yourself standing on the lawns of a school for missionaries’ children. It’s an idyllic location by a lily-fringed lake. You watch as the children set off on an outing – you overhear that they are going up Crystal Mountain behind the school. A seven year old boy with a beatific face is telling his friend what he will do with the diamond he finds on the summit.

When the children have gone, you go and sit on a swing under a pepper tree overlooking the lake. A squall picks up from nowhere, agitates the water and envelopes the mountain. You get goosebumps. The same presage of change that the herd boy feared is coming also to the missionaries’ child.

So brothers Zachye and Stanley, friends Michael and Simon, find the certainties of their world crumble away. Soon rifts build between brothers, between friends. Tragedy follows.

Years later, Michael, the child from the mission school, now turned gifted surgeon, returns to the country of his birth for, what he hopes, is a flying visit. But he had not reckoned on falling for a beautiful woman. A married woman. As if drawn by a siren he follows her out west to where the ghosts of his past linger. But Zachye is out there, somewhere in the wild landscape, nursing a serious grudge – and after the same woman.

This is now reading like the longest and most leisurely back-cover blurb you’ve ever seen (is a blogged blurb a blurg?) so I’ll finish with a summary: blackmail, murder, mental breakdown, ancestral spirits, diviners, emergency surgery, buried grief, spurned love. Not necessarily in that order.

And for those who like history and setting there’s: HM Stanley, The Mountains of the Moon, the East African coast where Victorian explorers and missionaries made landfall, Idi Amin (a march on/march off appearance), a Citroën DS, a disease they called Slim, and the Uganda mail train (of Man Eaters of Tsavo fame). Not quite sure now how I joined the dots on all those.

I’d be delighted to respond to questions and comments. Tomorrow: in search of paradise!