September 18, 2023

Beyond the Door of No Return

By David Diop
Review by
Beyond the Door of No Return is an engrossing work from a powerful and humane writer, David Diop, winner of the International Booker Prize.
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The protagonist of David Diop’s Beyond the Door of No Return is Michel Adanson, a real life 18th-century French botanist. In this story, beautifully translated from French by Sam Taylor, Michel bequeaths a journal telling the tale of a secret and forbidden love to the daughter he both doted on and neglected. Whether the object of his passion felt the same is uncertain—she probably didn’t—and this is where much of Diop’s novel derives its power.

As a young man, Michel goes to Senegal to study the country’s flora and fauna, and spy, a little, for the Senegal Concession, which traffics in West African commodities, including slaves. The book’s title refers to Gorée Island and its ghastly holding pens where people were kept like livestock before being forced onto ships and taken away forever to the Americas. After a couple of years in Senegal a story reaches the young Frencfhman that can’t be true.

It seems that a young woman who was sold into slavery in America has somehow returned, even though she was believed to be dead. This obsesses Michel to the point where he drops his studies and sets out to find her. After being laid low by a fever, he meets Maram and falls passionately in love with her—or thinks he does.

Diop, winner of the 2021 International Booker Prize for At Night All Blood Is Black, is such a skilled and subtle writer that he won’t let us forget that Michel is a privileged white man despite all his sympathy for and even identification with his Black hosts. Though most of the story is told through Michel’s eyes, even the minor characters are memorable. Through Taylor’s translations, Diop lets us see the condescension of Michel’s better known contemporaries; the arrogant cruelty of the men who run the Senegal Concession; and the perfidy and shame of the man who caused Maram to flee her village. Diop also makes us love Ndiak, Michel’s wonderfully cocky teenaged companion, and we come to respect both the resourceful Maram and the proud and bitter Madeleine, whose portrait reminds the elderly Michel of Maram so much that he tries, pathetically, to court her. Beyond the Door of No Return is an engrossing work from a powerful and humane writer.

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