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K.E. Karl
Our Man in Mbabane
K. E. Karl, author

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Market)

In 1977, an idealistic young American, Frank George, travels to Swaziland and gets a job at the government’s statistical office. On weekdays, he is a typical expat in Mbabane, enjoying a comfortable lifestyle of hikes in the beautiful countryside and raucous parties with friends. But on weekends, he is a covert agent for the African National Congress, delivering weapons into South Africa for the ANC’s fight against apartheid. His encounters with the apartheid regime and its supporters continually remind him of the importance of his mission. Frank’s exploits bring him face-to-face with armed police, soldiers, and farmers, but he always escapes, aided by his wit, unassuming nature—and white skin. He develops a strong friendship with Terence, a clever and amusing British expat, and embarks on two turbulent romantic relationships. Over time, Frank feels his commitment to fighting apartheid tested and starts to lose track of the man he once thought he was…
Touched with espionage, romance, and a welcome sense of verisimilitude, Karl’s first novel features an American expat in the heart of Africa at the height of apartheid. The story revolves around Frank George, an American economist who in 1977 travels to Swaziland and talks his way into a job in the nation’s Central Statistical Office. But the whole thing is just a cover. In actuality, George is on a secret mission to transport arms and ammunition to the African National Congress (ANC) to aid in the fight against apartheid. Will he succeed in his endeavor, or will he end up getting lost in the color and camaraderie of the local landscape?

Despite the rather heavy subject matter, Karl’s plotting and storytelling are light and fun, with much of the novel caught up in descriptions of romance, parties, and social scenery. George himself swings from one love affair to the next, his social life at times seeming to take narrative precedence over his daring secret. The passages when Karl shifts focus to the ANC and their fight against apartheid, meanwhile, convincingly depict the system, its lived peculiarities, and what it took to stand up to it. Likewise, scenes involving political wrangling or the bureaucratic tangle of working abroad are distinguished by the author’s expertise.

Karl’s novel is no thriller fantasy, digging into life and spycraft as it’s actually lived, offering lively and in-depth insight into African politics, history, and culture rather than the plot twists of a potboiler. The dialogue and characterization both are sharp, and Karl’s smooth, unfussy prose keeps the story flowing smoothly as he illuminates a fresh milieu, avoiding the stereotypes or ginned-up suspense that often compromise stories of white Americans in Africa. Lovers of romance and spy novels with a real-world edge will enjoy this story, which is as light in its telling as it is weighty in its concerns.

Takeaway: A thoughtful novel of an American expat fighting apartheid in Africa, told with a light touch.

Great for fans of: Eleanor Morse’s White Dog Fell from the Sky, Graham Greene.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-