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Diplomatic posts, and toasts, in Namibia in ‘Embassy Wife’

“Embassy Wife”  (Farrar Straus and Giroux)
“Embassy Wife” (Farrar Straus and Giroux)
By Ellen Akins Special to the Washington Post

The disclaimer comes late in “Embassy Wife,” Katie Crouch’s antic new novel: “Amanda sipped her champagne obediently and thought about how you could love a place deeply without understanding it at all.”

The champagne – sipped in a posh hotel in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, one of the least densely populated countries in the world – really makes this insight sparkle.

Amanda has come to Namibia with her husband, Mark, an unlikely Fulbright scholar studying a subject, the German genocide of the Nama people in the early 1900s, of which he is so clearly ignorant that a reader suspects a ruse – rightly.

As it turns out, Mark has unfinished emotional business in Namibia, where he served briefly in the Peace Corps 20 years earlier.

Conveniently, Mark’s conscience has caught up with him at the very moment when it can best propel him, Amanda and their 9-year-old daughter, Meg, into a madcap plot involving the very woman he wronged all those years ago, who, also conveniently, now goes by a different name.

Much of the novel revolves around another “trailer,” as the spouses of official-ish expats are called: Persephone, whose purportedly sexy husband, Adam, is a legal counsel for the U.S. Embassy, making Persephone “an – no, the – Embassy Wife.”

This makes her a font of knowledge, gossip and opinion about diplomatic etiquette, style and intrigue, which is sometimes interesting, often amusing and occasionally cringe-inducing. (“No matter how modern attitudes got, or how empowered mothers became, as an Embassy Wife [or Husband!], lots of sex was something you signed up for.”)

And then there’s Mila Shilongo, wife of the minister of transportation, who appears to Amanda like this: “This goddess was half a foot taller than either her or Persephone; every limb seemed to stream from her body, graceful as water. Her skin was dark, polished and poreless; her face, a masterpiece of planes and curves, centered by long-lashed eyes the color of maple syrup.”

Mila’s perfectly conceived daughter Taimi, who gets into trouble with Meg, is politely hilarious. “Thank you for this excellent visiting opportunity,” she says, and later, “Thank you for letting us enjoy video entertainment.”

Hijinks ensue along with schemes within schemes – a rhino-saving project that involves Persephone babysitting a rhino overnight; a sub-rosa jewel-trading venture; and silly CIA business. With a lot of overlap, it’s difficult to say what’s comical and what’s in earnest – but there’s enough of both to keep a reader happily engaged.

And, because the author has lived in Namibia, there are plenty of probably true facts to savor about the landscape, language quirks and expat behavior. That is to say, here’s a disclaimer the novel should have included: Don’t take this book too seriously, and it will entertain you, seriously.

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