Beyond the Door of No Return

Written by David Diop Sam Taylor (trans.)
Review by Amanda Cockrell

There are many doors of no return. Death is one, even for Orpheus, the tragic Greek hero who failed to bring his lover back from the kingdom of Hades. The door from the governor’s house on the Senegal island of Gorée to the jetty where African slaves were loaded onto ships bound for the Americas is another. The two are intertwined throughout this novel of 18th-century Senegal and a young French botanist’s infatuation with Maram, a Senegalese woman supposed to have returned from that fatal voyage.

The story unfolds mainly in Michel Adanson’s diary, which he leaves to his daughter at his death years later. The frame story that opens and closes the novel is told in close third person focusing on Adanson and his daughter, but the main narrative is the diary, and nested within that a story recounted to Adanson by Maram, a device that may leave some readers feeling distanced by so many retellings.

Adanson’s growing realization of the horrors of the slave trade is juxtaposed with his friendship with the Senegalese, his slow transition into thinking in Wolof rather than French, his lyrical descriptions of the country, its beauties and terrors, and his growing preoccupation with Maram even before he actually meets her. One can also read Adanson’s obsession with an African woman he barely knows as a comment on the exoticism of the colonial viewpoint, an approach as dehumanizing as the slave trade itself. This connection may underlie the otherwise perplexing last chapter where the perspective switches abruptly to a Senegalese woman whose half-naked portrait, which resembles Maram, was painted at the behest of her enslavers.

Beyond the Door of No Return is skillfully evocative of place and time. Whether that outweighs the sometimes distant, confusing storytelling will depend on the reader.