Winner of the International Booker Prize David Diop returns with a novel that explores colonialism and the slave trade. Beyond the Door of No Return (translated by Sam Taylor) opens in France in the early 19th Century but the bulk of the novel is set in Senegal over fifty years earlier. The narrative focusses on a real person – botanist Michel Adanson – whose life work was to create a classification system for nature.
Beyond the Door of No Return opens with Adanson’s death in Paris. His daughter Aglaé takes possession of his effects and hidden in a cabinet she finds a notebook detailing an experience he had in Senegal in the 1740s. Adanson’s official travels and collections in Senegal are on the record but these “secret” diaries tell a very different, much more personal story and hint at why Adanson buried himself in his work on his return to France. While in Senegal on a collecting tour, Adanson is told of a woman called Maram who had been sold into slavery but who, rumour has it, has returned three years later. Accompanied by the teenage son of one of the local kings, Adanson sets out to find this woman, plus do a little spying for the French East India Company on the way. The bulk of the book is Adanson’s journey to find Maram and what happens when he does so, including her own tragic story. The nesting of stories places Maram’s tale squarely in the centre, echoing both forward and back and impacting on both the Adanson’s life and the life of his family.
The door of no return is a real place – it is the place through which slaves from Senegal passed on their way to the Americas. Through this story Diop gives an insight into the role of the French and English colonists in driving the slave trade but also into the local politics that supported it. Even though through the eyes of a white man who does not accept the spiritual aspects of the events that he is a part of, Diop manages to give a nuanced view of the situation and beliefs in Senegal at that time. This is particularly through Adanson’s interactions and conversations with Maram and with his young companion Ndiak.
Beyond The Door of No Return is a powerful historical novel that is able to provide new insights into a time and place. It exposes the barbarity and hypocrisy of the slave trade, a terrible aspect of world history that should be continually remembered and continues to reverberate.