Serengotti: Novel Review

Review by Stacey O’Carroll

Author: Eugen Bacon

Publisher: Transit Lounge

RRP: $32.99

Release Date: 1 August 2023

“Normality is gratis, not sacred. One can ignore it but can never fully dispense with it. Subconsciously it may linger, consciously it does not distract.” (Eugen Bacon)

Once in a while, a novel comes along that challenges not only the genres you like to read, but also your opinions on second-person narration. African Australian author Eugen Bacon’s latest novel, Serengotti, does just that. I’ll admit that I do not usually enjoy stories written in the second person. I find the close perspective distracting, and rather than putting myself in the position of the protagonist, I find myself pulling away from the characters. However, Bacon’s use of second-person narration allows the reader to see the world through the protagonist’s eyes and to challenge their own beliefs or perceptions of the world. Bacon’s talent at weaving evocative and engaging prose means the ‘you’s’ flow without being jarring. The use of second-person narration, alongside the pronoun ‘hir,’ poses questions to the reader about gender identity and norms. 

Serengotti begins on the day Ch’anzu is fired from hir job and discovers hir wife has cheated. When Ch’anzu takes a leap of faith and accepts a job at Serengotti, a migrant African outpost away from hir home in inner city Melbourne, past demons are illuminated. Faced with being an outsider in a displaced community and shocking violence, Ch’anzu must also try to reconcile hir brother Tex’s disappearance and actions.

“You’ll step out of the house for a walk or a run, feel a shaft of half-hearted sun on your brow, and scream.”

By situating Serengotti in rural NSW, Bacon brings the tragic experiences of Apartheid (and many other similar events from history) back into the reader’s mind, but in a familiar Australian setting. Bacon’s story also reminds the reader of the challenges and trauma people can face as refugees escaping a violent past and how such violence can linger. It is interesting to note that the closeness between the name Serengotti and the Serengeti, Africa, appears to be intentional. The parallels between how animals are treated in a reserve and a community like the fictional Serengotti is an image that is hard to shake.

I particularly enjoyed Bacon’s poetic language and concrete poetry. These choices make the letters and words dance on the page and create sound, where there is just printed text. Bacon’s integration of Swahili, Bantu and “made-up” language adds a layer of complexity that grounds the story in realistic interactions between multi-lingual individuals. As well as terminology, Bacon’s glossary includes characters, their pronouns, and places mentioned in the novel. With a large cast of important characters, the glossary can be a helpful quick reminder.

For a reasonably short novel, Serengotti packs in a lot and tells a story that expands beyond the page. Bacon creates a strange, imaginative world that could exist anywhere. However, there is also a secondary story about the love between two strong women, Ch’anzu and hir aunt, weaved throughout the novel. For me, the surreal world of Serengotti that Bacon creates was more engaging than the scenes set in Melbourne. However, this also speaks to Bacon’s talent as a writer because the reader begins to feel Ch’anzu’s frustration alongside the protagonist.

 Bacon’s Serengotti is a poetic and poignant novel that will linger with you well beyond the last page.