Books

The ShortRead: Michela Wrong

The ShortRead of 12 August

Borderlines

Author: Michela Wrong

What's the story: Courtroom dramas largely fall into two categories: pop pulp, with wise-cracking legal types sticking it to 'the man', and proper courtroom dramas, like Michela Wrong's new novel. 

Grappling with the thorny topic of the West's flawed history of African engagement, Borderlines follows British lawyer Paula Shackleton, an anti-heroine mourning a lost love, called to represent the African state of North Darrar in its border arbitration case at The Hague. 

A finely crafted début novel, you'll gain a decent dose of education and Western guilt as you plough through this on your holiday.

Release date: 12 August

Extract

By two a.m. the glare was really beginning to bother me. African airports don’t, on the whole, go in for soft lighting, and Lira International was no exception. I didn’t need a mirror to know what I looked like in the greenish-white light given off by the fluorescent strip running the length of the ceiling: baggy-eyed, sallow, prematurely old.

I lay on the stiff acrylic carpet, my bag under one ear as a makeshift pillow, hands between my knees, pretending to ignore my guard. He was actually in the next room, but the door had been propped open, and since most of the wall separating the two rooms was glass, he could see me without leaving his desk, where he sat reading a newspaper, occasionally sipping a glass of dark tea.
 
Earlier, I had gone through the outrage, shocked innocence and I-demand-an-explanation routine that seems de rigueur when a young white woman is suddenly, mysteriously, diverted from a path leading to a boarding gate, the trundle across the tarmac in the warm night air and then, aah, the microcosm of Western civilisation that is the modern aircraft, a little bubble of agreed conventions and soothing yogic rituals. I’d declaimed at considerable length on my key role in the Legal Office of the President. I’d dropped my boss’s name, demanded to speak to the presidential adviser and brandished my files, to emphasise how vital it was that I reach The Hague in time for the announcement of a historic ruling that would shape his country’s future.
 
Green Eyes, as I had mentally tagged him – like any good lawyer, I’d asked for his name but he’d only grunted – hadn’t turned a hair. The absence of reaction, in fact, was the most terrifying thing about the whole affair. An insincere apology, an attempt at intimidation, anything would have been better than the total lack of expression he’d shown as he had turned on me his light, limpid gaze – so disconcerting in this country of dark brown eyes – and said, ‘No flight for you tonight.’
 
Over the next hour and a half, I’d watched through the glass as the other passengers on the flight went through the routine I, too, had been planning: the pointless trawl of the airport shop in search of suitable presents (biography of Julius Nyerere, anyone? Copy of the Ministry of Health’s five-year plan?), a beer at the bar, cigarette on the terrace, the cluster at the boarding gate, a final cursory search before disappearing through the doors.
 
A few threw curious, embarrassed glances in my direction. Wasn’t that the deputy director of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency? I’d certainly met that blond young man – Norwegian Embassy? Danish? One of the Scandies, in any case – at some party. But I did not call out. ‘All is forbidden’ had somehow done its work. I was already aware of a film between me and my fellow expatriates, the gelatinous membrane that separates the innocent from the compromised. A strange shame held me back, the conviction that they would have walked on past me as I mouthed my silent appeal.

 
The plane hurtled past the terminal building. Heading out across the plateau, it wheeled until its nose pointed north-west. I could almost hear the clink of the mini-bar bottles as the air stewards handed out the required anaesthetics, tucking a few extras into seatbacks. A few minutes later, it was no more than a winking light in the careless splatter of stars that was the Lira night sky. Green Eyes savoured my expression, his point made. I was on my own.