Cobalt Chronicles: A Novel by Kathryn Den Houter tells Esynama’s story, a young girl who struggles to emerge from an oppressive system characterized by child labor, exploitation with impunity, servitude, human trafficking, and sexual abuse. Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the narrative follows the young female protagonist from the moment her brother, Moyo, wakes her up in the middle of the night in the cobalt exploitation camp to tell her that her mother is dying. Her gambling father pushes her to work in the Katanga mines, but the inspiration from her mother forces her to desire more than servitude: She wants to be educated. As she pursues this dream, she faces impossible odds, is preyed on by lustful men, is confronted with insane jealousy, and faces violence that leaves her for dead. Can she muster enough fight to rise above the misery her kind is condemned to endure?
The novel opens with a promise: 'My name is Esynama. They call me Esy. My life's story is as treacherous and serpentine as the mighty Congo River. I want you to know me and see what I have seen.' The author creates a young, female protagonist who instantly wins the sympathy of the reader, and deftly uses her to create streams of consciousness that highlight the pathos permeating the entire narrative. From the moment she runs in the dark, worried about her brother and dying mother, the reader feels drawn to her. It is a premise that introduces the conflict which moves the plot steadily forward. The characters are nuanced, sophisticated, and written in situations that try the human spirit while depicting the struggle of survival in a land that has been raped and violated for far too long. The setting in the Katanga region of Congo is fascinating and it reads like a character on its own in the story. While this novel features strong stylistic elements, it succeeds to arouse the emotions of anger and pain in the reader’s heart, and as a reader of African descent, this novel got me not only enthralled but furious at the mindless exploitation that puts fragile lives in danger. Den Houter’s writing is excellent, the plot is twisty, and the entire narrative is brimming with realism and human pain. Cobalt Chronicles: A Novel is one of those books that will entertain readers and prompt them to reflect on the painful reality of man’s inhumanity. It is a powerful social indictment for this generation.