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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

So Distant From My Life

Monique Ilboudo

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To purchase So Distant From My Life

Title: So Distant From My Life
Author: Monique Ilboudo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 123 pages
Original in: French
Availability: So Distant From My Life - US
So Distant From My Life - UK
Si loin de ma vie - Canada
Si loin de ma vie - France
directly from: Tilted Axis Press
  • French title: Si loin de ma vie
  • Translated by Yarri Kamara

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Our Assessment:

B : well-written but a bit thin

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 28/6/2018 Gladys Marivat
The Observer . 13/11/2022 Lucy Popescu
World Lit. Today . 1-2/2023 Rick Henry

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ilboudo offers an illuminating take on the many reasons why people leave their home lands. Jeanphi's frequent digressions and non-sequential narrative add to the sense of an oral testimony. This powerful account is a timely reminder of how wealth can open doors." - Lucy Popescu, The Observer

  • "Ilboudo develops complex human relationships, richly figured and situated in the particulars of the times and spaces her characters occupy. More compelling is how they drive the narrative and what they reveal about Jeanphi and how he comes to understand that he himself has made the choices he has, including his evolving values and actions. For readers, what Jeanphi fails to notice about himself and the world is compelling." - Rick Henry, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       So Distant From My Life is narrated by Jeanphi, who grows up in a former French colony in Africa, in the fictional city of Ouabany. He struggles in school and drops out; hanging out with a bad crowd he winds up living in the streets for three years before returning to the family fold. For a while he does reasonably well for himself, setting up a secretarial service of sorts on the street -- writing letters for people and the like --, but between the emergence of cybercafés and cell phones eventually finds that such services are no longer in demand.
       He sees no future in his homeland, and decides the only option is to go abroad:

My plan was simple: One, get out of this rathole as soon as possible. Two, go and make a fortune in Europe, or even better, in the land of Uncle Sam. Three, come back and live like a king, taunting all those who treated me like dirt.
       Significantly, he wants to return. He only wants to go abroad because he believes the opportunities there are greater than in his homeland; he is not interested in these places otherwise.
       He takes two unsuccessful stabs at making the journey -- winding up in Moroccan Oujda for a year and a half on his second attempt -- but is not successful. The third time, he hopes will be the charm -- but instead he first meets "a humanitarian of the luxury sort", Frenchman Paul-Emile Latour-Genet -- called Elgep -- who is in his sixties and comes to this country to set up some vocational schools. Jeanphi becomes his live-in assistant -- "efficient and indispensable". It's a great situation for him -- allowing him also to help other relatives -- but also only a temporary one, falling apart when Elgep returns to his native France.
       Elgep is homosexual -- something that makes Jeanphi uneasy when he realizes it, thinking that perhaps the old man had designs on him; already in Oujda he had been in a situation where he could have traded (homo)sexual favors for much better treatment -- but the idea was abhorrent to him. Elgep explained that had no intention of forcing himself on Jeanphi -- but he is open to the idea, should Jeanphi be tempted. While Elgep is in Africa, Jeanphi doesn't even consider it -- but once Elgep is back in France Jeanphi suddenly sees it as an opportunity. And, indeed, once Jeanphi informs Elgep of his willingness, Elgep quickly and easily facilitates his traveling to France. Jeanphi has finally escaped -- and into a life of great comfort, no less -- but also wonders: "I had succeeded in migrating, but at what cost ?"
       For Jeanphi, entering into this homosexual relationship is a "life choice". Unlike the "genuinely gay" Elgep, "it was not my sexual orientation", but he goes along with it because it affords him the escape from his (other) circumstance he had always longed for. Still, once established in France, he realizes: "This life is not mine !" It is, in every respect, foreign to him.
       Jeanphi does return to his homeland, but the rumors that had and continued to spread about him haunt him there, from the death of his father to his own ultimate fate.
       So Distant From My Life is a compact novel. Ilboudo captures Jeanphi's voice well, but also races and skips across much of the action. In part, this sort of understatement -- of not going into various parts in great detail -- works well, but given just how much Jeanphi's life zigs and zags to a variety of extremes it also feels too thin in parts., It's also something of a muddle: for all of Jeanphi's torment, he seems to slip very easily into his role as domestic partner and lover of Elgep -- with Ilboudo skipping over any description of Jeanphi wrestling with taking those huge steps.
       Asides about family -- such as Jeanphi's father, who had long fought for the French colonial forces (including in Algeria ("combatting former comrades who were now fighting for their independence")) and who had left the country as 'Tambi' and returned with the French name 'Raphael', i.e. whose identity had also been turned and changed at its most fundamental level abroad -- are very good, but the glimpses, including of sister Marité, are generally only brief ones in this quick story.
       The overlaying of two themes -- migration and homosexuality -- works reasonably well, but they are ultimately not explored sufficiently deeply. For all of Jeanphi's desperation to get to a promised land, he made clear from the start that his goal is to return home eventually -- as he then does after making good his escape, bailing on France, despite the life of great comfort he can enjoy there, and returning to set up a youth shelter back in his home country. Meanwhile, Ilboudo does present some of Jeanphi's ambivalence about homosexuality -- he wonders why men are attracted to him, and has the occasional doubts about his own feelings -- but never really allows the reader to see him as a true sexual or romantic partner: he does not describe much romantic feelings or sexual longing for anyone, male or female; indeed, sex (and love) do not appear to mean much to him. (The general attitudes towards homosexuality, especially locally, are, however, well-presented -- and utilized -- in the story.) Indeed, the greatest flaw in the novel is that in writing about why Jeanphi feels and finds himself 'so distant from my life', Ilboudo never adequately presents a picture of what his true self -- that fundamental life that he is pulled away from -- might be.
       Ilboudo writes well, and engages with some interesting themes, but So Distant From My Life feels somewhat unbalanced -- trying to do and say so much, but stopping short of fully exploring much of that. It is a good but ultimately not entirely satisfying read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 January 2023

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So Distant From My Life: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author Monique Ilboudo, from Burkina Faso, was born in 1959.

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© 2023 the complete review

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