Set in the West African city of Ilaju in the 1980s, this coming-of-age tale centres on 17-year-old Charlie, a white English boy who has spent the last year at a privileged international school, taken there each morning by Samson, the chauffeur from whom he is learning pidgin. A shocking event jerks Charlie out of the complacency of this pampered post-colonial life: he witnesses a road accident in which two boys are killed and the driver of offending car set upon and necklaced (burnt to death by having a petrol soaked tyre placed round his neck) by the crowd at the instigation of a charismatic man in a suit. The efforts of another, shabbily dressed man, to diffuse the situation come to nothing. It turns out that the shabby man, Joseph, runs a refuge for orphans where Charlie must volunteer his help as penance following a wild evening at a bar involving prostitutes; the alternative is to be expelled from school.
For Charlie and another school friend, Guppy, also a volunteer, the work of the refuge to which they quickly become committed is an eye-opening experience that reveals the realities of poverty and social breakdown for the most dispossessed people of Sengharia. The mysterious charismatic man reappears and opens a nearby church promising the congregation that he has the power to give the infertile children. Alerted to this traffic in babies and small children, the boys and their friend Yejide who has grown up in the refuge, try to unmask the villain.
This novel is a pacey adventure involving detection and exciting, sometimes unlikely action that keep the reader turning the pages. Its strength, however, lies in its gritty realism and rich sense of time and place. Harry Allen spent his teenage years in Nigeria and he writes convincingly and in a multi-layered way about its complex society including the depiction of characters such as Joseph and Yejide. Meanwhile, faced with difficult choices and moral dilemmas, his central character Harry grows in stature. The novel ends with the arrival at the refuge of people dying from a new and mysterious illness – the AIDS pandemic has arrived.