Set in Zambia, legal thriller has unusual tales to tell

The Garden of Burning Sand - Corban Addison
The Garden of Burning Sand - Corban Addison

“The Garden of Burning Sand” by Corban Addison; Quercus (398 pages, $26.95)

From the opening scene of a young girl in peril to the rich conclusion of whether justice is served, “The Garden of Burning Sand” gives readers a glimpse inside the government and criminal system of Zambia – and it may make us appreciate the American system a bit more.

After authorities in the city of Lusaka are told that a girl with Down syndrome has been sexually assaulted and seems unable to speak, in comes Zoe Fleming, an American lawyer working on human rights cases in Africa.

It’s pure luck that Zoe gets involved in the case early on: The justice system in Zambia is vastly different from the United States. And those differences are one reason this book turns into a compelling novel. Readers attuned to a steady diet of “Law & Order” or criminal thriller novels expect fast resolutions and instant DNA results.

Corban Addison, a lawyer and the author of “A Walk Across the Sun,” does a thorough job of explaining just how different things are in Zambia.

When a rape suspect is arrested, prosecutors want a DNA test. Standard in the states. Not in Zambia.

“In five business days, (the lawyer’s) legal team produced a rebuttal memorandum attacking the constitutionality, rationality and morality of DNA testing in a rape case. Ignoring the weight of foreign authority in the favor of DNA, he cherry-picked and misconstrued a South African decision questioning the efficacy of profiling where only small samples were used. Worse, he referred to Kuyeya (the victim) as a ‘mentally disturbed child,’ playing upon the African suspicion of people with intellectual disabilities.”

By then most readers are hooked. Along with a tale of corruption and fear of AIDS, Addison delivers several back stories, including Zoe’s. She is mostly estranged from her father, a senator who happens to be running for president. She also begins a romance with a Zambian police investigator working with her on the rape case.

Occasionally, the Fleming family comes across as contrived. Only the story of Kuyeya, the young girl who is the daughter of a prostitute, is riveting on its own merits. Zoe’s involvement with the child, who warms to her quickly, gives a soft edge to a complicated character.

The biggest obstacle facing Zoe is that she is Western and must overcome inherent suspicion of her motives, background and beliefs. Does she really want to help the Zambian people, or does she want the Zambian justice system to become Westernized?

Addison tells a compelling, complex story of another culture and how it handles its crises – and should give readers food for thought about American culture.

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