In 1933, young Ralph Talbot leaves England for East Africa as a way to prove himself to his prospective father-in-law with a year-long posting at “the Company.” Before he leaves, his fiancée, Lillian, gives him a black Mabie Todd Blackbird ink pen, which he uses to chronicle his two-month voyage, full of little mysteries and new experiences, and the subsequent months settling into life in exotic and tempestuous Lamu, all told through very detailed letters to Lillian. The reader doesn’t only follow Ralph on his journey, though. In interspersing chapters, the reader follows that Mabie Todd pen some sixty years later, as it passes from hand to hand in a series of disconnected stories.
Although Ralph’s journey and the people and places he encounters are fascinating, his letters are at times too wordy to be engaging, the lengthy descriptions making them feel less like real letters. In the narrative sections, the descriptions of scenery are quite lovely and more fitting. I wish that we got a better sense of Lillian and her responses, even indirectly, as Ralph’s whole drive throughout the book hinged upon Lil and their hoped-for future. The pen’s journey was also hard to get into, as the various hands it passed through belonged to characters not generally redeeming or likeable, at least to this reader. Their stories felt too disjointed, with only the pen providing the narrative continuity. That said, the last two chapters were really gorgeous and brought the novel full circle. A pity that it took so long to get there.