Former slaves who wanted to leave America, the land of their oppressors, and start anew in Africa, founded Liberia. They had great dreams of forming a stable country that would become the new center for the African Diaspora, where Africans and Black Americans could feel at home. Unfortunately, their dream never reached fruition. The country soon became an impoverished nation, ravaged by many of the same issues as many other African societies. This culminated in a civil war where hundreds of thousands of people were killed. As a result, the connection between Black Americans and Africans is severed and there is a sense of isolation separating the two groups.
This scenario lies in the foreground of Heather Neff’s new novel. In “Accident of Birth,” Neff investigates what happens when a well-off black woman is personally affected by these dramatic events in Liberia. Reba Freeman has lived the American Dream; she has a seemingly wonderful marriage and a beautiful, musically talented daughter. However, her past haunts her and is slowly destroying the life she has worked so hard to build. Everything comes crashing down when she finds out that her ex-husband has become a Liberian civil war leader and is being held for crimes against humanity for allegedly murdering 30 innocent villagers. She finds herself risking her job and marriage to help a man she hasn’t talked to in 20 years because she does not believe he is capable of such atrocities.
The novel is a bold exploration of how something as simple as birthplace can dramatically affect a person’s existence. Neff looks at how often personal decisions, such as where to live, can change the course of history. Reba is faced with the possibility that the marriage to her first husband stayed intact, his situation may have turned out differently. Liberia is a country of people who would be living drastically different lives, but for an “accident of birth.” The author also calls upon the reader to look at the relationship of Black Americans, Liberians and African people as a whole. She directs the reader to examine these broken bonds and then asks if they can be mended.
Neff skillfully pens a moving narrative full of intrigue. The reader is engaged from the first page and develops a genuine interest in the well-constructed and realistic characters. The story progresses at a consistent pace, gracefully switching between two time periods. Neff writes with a simple style, which makes for an easy and entertaining read that also confronts serious issues. “Accident of Birth” is an outstanding depiction of how lives can change in an instant.
Rating: 4/5 stars