M. Lachi's The Ivory Staff is an intriguing blend of a literary dark fairy tale that plumbs great depths encompassing political intrigue, tragedy, fratricide, corruption, ethnic cleansing, and class distinction. It is also a story of the power of love in the face of the most daunting of circumstances and obstacles.
The setting of the narrative is the make-believe island of Mutarobi on the Gulf of Gabes in the western arm of the Mediterranean Sea, southeast of the Tunisian Kerkennah Islands and sandwiched between Sicily's Pelagie islands and the port cities of Libya. And it is here where we meet the principal actors of the yarn, a fifteen-year old boy, Maliko, his Uncle Pan, who is the revered Mutaro or king of the Mutarobi, and Saab, a bashir or chief male servant.
As the story unfolds, we find Maliko snooping around in a forbidden room in the palace where he lives. He notices a rectangular case decorated with intricate gold renderings of dragons, lions, and other dangerous animals sitting on a small, square side-table. When he is about to lift the lid of the case, Uncle Pan shows up and smacks Maliko's hand away from the forbidden box causing him to tip over a lantern. The lantern's hot oil is dangerously spread all over the room as well as on Maliko's clothes and body.
The next morning when Maliko questions his Uncle Pan concerning something he alluded to in the forbidden room concerning his mother, he is silenced. Frustrated, Maliko, knowing that he is an orphan and was adopted, practically begs Uncle Pan to tell him about his parents and what they were like, however, Uncle Pan replies that he would tell him later, thus initially denying him his quest to find out the truth about his parents.
This now sets the stage for two separate articulate, introspective and revealing narratives recounted to Maliko, one by Uncle Pan and the other by Saab as they reminisce on their lives and their respective connections to Maliko's mother, the beautiful strong willed peasant girl, Samiyah (Siya).
Siya was from the Madani tribe that were considered to be of a lower class than the privileged Kasimo that also comprised some extremists that wanted the Madani tribe to be exterminated. We also learn about two brothers, Prince Chad and Prince Ali, sons of Mutaro Ole continually competing against each other to win their father's approval. What is more, we are filled in about a very critical and unthinkable lottery that would be conducted by Prince Chad who is determined to find a wife outside of his own tribe. The lottery would produce several winners and Chad would choose one who would then be presented at the Annual Ball of Mutarobi where he would be named successor to his father as Mutaro. One of the winners turns out to be Siya and, as we will discover, her appearance will have a lasting repercussion affecting the lives of Chad, Uncle Pan, Saad and Maliko.
In this brief review it is quite difficult to convey the full flavor of this mesmerizing feast of a book that portrays situations that can easily be seen as metaphors reflecting several issues that we can relate to and which many of us experience in our own lives. However, best of all we must not forget Lachi's distinctive, unique and sometimes even chilling voice as she crafts a stunning, sprawling novel where enormous risks are taken, not least that of demanding our understanding for the monstrous and unthinkable. In addition, her development of plot is perfectly calibrated as she maintains all of the elements of the yarn in suspension.