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Lara Santoro’s stunningly ambitious debut novel sets the travails of Anna, a brazen Italian journalist based in Nairobi, against the backdrop of the devastating AIDS epidemic in Africa. To the broader story of the continent and its struggling people, there’s no resolution: 6,000 Africans die every day from the disease, and the conviction that there is no end to the senselessness seems to afflict Anna, who juggles two lovers, a growing drinking problem, and an unpredictable rage that seems only to grow the longer she stays in Africa. Mercy, the Kenyan woman for whom the novel is named, insists that Anna employ her as a housemaid, and her characterization initially reeks of the tired “mammy” trope: Her massive body and bellowing voice overtake any room she enters, she’s wise and opinionated, and she does her best to keep Anna afloat, scolding her for drinking too much and reminding her about late copy. Thankfully Mercy is entirely unconventional in other ways, and she soon develops into the novel’s most dynamic character. She dresses outrageously—she’s “a giantess miraculously squeezed into a pink halter top and fake patent-leather pants,” Santoro writes. And we learn that before working for Anna, Mercy produced and sold muratina, a cheap and potent moonshine, in the Nairobi slum Korogocho. Anna notes that Mercy found no need to rationalize heading a business that many would find immoral: “She supplied the ragged multitude with the quickest, the most potent medication for its pain.” For an assignment, Anna seeks out Father Anselmo, a Franciscan priest who tends to Korogocho’s dead. Predictably, he’s the vehicle for Mercy’s larger message. He insists that what Anna deems “evil”—the violence in the slums and the greed and ignorance of world leaders—are symptoms of a larger problem: blindness. “Early Christian communities did not define evil in moral terms at all,” he tells her. “They did not even call it evil: They called it aporia, roadlessness. There is a road…but you do not see it. You’re neither good nor bad. You’re blind.” Despite occasional heavy-handed messages such as those, Mercy is admirably understated, and Santoro keeps the story at a quick clip while allowing Anna to develop convincingly. Anna fails over and over: She drinks herself numb, loses her temper, repeatedly leaves and returns to the same lovers, and at times irresponsibly wields her power over Mercy. Santoro, a veteran journalist who’s covered AIDS in Africa for Newsweek and the Christian Science Monitor, doesn’t beat the reader over the head with descriptions of suffering and death. Yet when she describes a slum or an overrun hospital, the writing is exacting and effective. Santoro doesn’t presume to offer a solution to civil wars, AIDS, or poverty in Africa. But she does remind us that the least we can do is open our eyes.