“El Niño caused the drought, but human beings caused the famine,” admits one of the aid workers very early on in this story, which is, by turns, inspiring, terrifying, heart-hammering and desperately sad. First published in 2009 and recently re-released in a Kindle edition, Something is Going to Fall Like Rain is set in southern Sudan some 10 years before it acquired independence.
An African adventure
The story is told from the point-of-view of a female aid worker, Maria Marshall, a trainee doctor from London, who is grieving over the death of her single parent mother.
Not long after Maria arrives in the remote village of Adek, in war-torn southern Sudan, and meets her two colleagues — Billy, from the US, and Sean, from Northern Ireland — than the local airfield is bombed. This means all three aid workers are now trapped, because the roads are too treacherous for travel, and a news blackout is put in place in case the story should "attract the attention of Government militias interested in Western hostage taking".
Now that she no longer has the option to return home, Maria must adapt to a new way of life and confront the reality of famine and sickness, "where everyone has lost someone. Fathers and brothers to the war, daughters to famine and childbirth, mothers to rape and sickness, children to bombs".
We stayed put and the food drops came down from the sky, a beacon attracting many more thousands of people from across Bahr el Ghazal and up into the neighbouring province of Darfur, drawing like a magnet any family capable of walking. New arrivals told us thousands more people – the sick, the very youngest and the elderly – were being buried daily by their surviving relatives in dusty graves across the plains towards Adek or left marooned in flooded villages facing certain famine and death. Arriving in Adek meant at least a fragile chance of life, however desperately short we were of food. But it also made the village even more vulnerable than before – a sitting duck target for militia attack or Government bombings. “It’s a cat and mouse game now,” Billy said.
Maria makes friends with many of the village residents, including a young boy who has been severely crippled by polio and the Chief who wanders around in a woman's dressing gown unaware of how ridiculous he looks, and learns about the Dinka way of life. And all the while she works around the clock helping to distribute basic food aid to the thousands of famine victims who flock to the camp.
Hints of a lucky escape
For much of the story, it feels like nothing much happens, but because the narrative is being told retrospectively by Maria ten years later, we get hints of something terrible occurring. It is these small nuggets of information interspersed through Maria's chronological account of her time in Adek that keeps the reader turning the pages. What happened when she was there? And how did she return to the UK?
I admit to myself for perhaps the first time, that the malaria is not the only recurring damage from Southern Sudan. That a decade ago a part of me died in Adek’s marketplace. That my label of ‘survivor’ is not the whole story because not all of me survived. After Sudan, something closed off hard inside me, suddenly and painfully, as if a part of my inner self had been cauterised without anaesthetic, irreparably and violently damaged. Something burned and blackened began lurking in the corners of my imagination, a wounded minotaur stalking the bloodied chambers of my heart and mind.
An authentic tale
The best thing about Something is Going to Fall Like Rain is that it feels authentic. That's probably because Wynne-Jones is an award-winning journalist who has worked in conflict zones around the world — from South Sudan to East Timor, Kosovo to Rwanda — and I suspect much of it is based on first-hand experience.
She is able to bring Africa and her people to life, and she can also write searingly good sentences, too:
The empty glass Ark stood grounded on dry land, sitting astride its own Godless in-land Ararat. Above the noise of the traffic, it seemed to me I could actually hear the sky-scrapers scraping the grey sky.
But occasionally the prose feels a bit forced when background information on the political situation is being explained — usually via extended pieces of dialogue — and I would have liked to have known more about Sean and Billy, both of whom seemed slightly two dimensional. But these are minor quibbles.
This is an excellent read, harrowing in places, heartwarming in others. And as a debut novel it is confident and self-assured. If you liked Andrea Eames' The White Shadow, Chris Abani's Song for Night and Gil Courtemanche's A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, then add this one to your list, because it is of a similar heart-rending ilk.