Review by Ellen Waters
A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, the debut novel of author Yaba Badoe, is a sensitive and beautifully poetic book. Weaving together magic and mythology with real world issues, Badoe is able to create a story that both enchants and unsettles readers.
The story follows Sante, a member of a nomadic street circus group led by Mama Rose. She is plagued by a dream about her past in which she is placed in a chest as a baby and sent away to save her from a shipwreck. As the novel develops, she begins to learn more about her past and the struggles of her family, and tries to find her identity in a world in which she has never quite seemed to belong. It provides a heart-breaking insight into the plight of refugees who are constantly pushed out instead of being welcomed, and merely want a safe place to call home. The values of family are delicately explored as we see not only Sante’s love and connection with her fellow travellers, who have been her family since she was taken in by them as a baby, but also her deeper spiritual connection with her biological family and her ancestors, kept alive through her dreams and the magical African folklore which is slowly teased into the story.
The novel almost becomes two tales running in parallel and intertwining at key moments – the action of the novel focuses on Sante’s attempts to dismantle a human trafficking group in the present day and to save Scarlett, whilst being constantly underpinned by her longing both to explore and escape her origins. As an adventure or fantasy story in itself, the novel is exciting and gripping right from the start, but the exploration of some darker themes makes it simultaneously a comment on modern life, and doesn’t allow the reader to maintain a distance which would detract from its social and political messages. In A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars we see discrimination and its devastating effects, in the mistreatment both of Sante’s family and of the travelling circus, where racial slurs and cruelty are used to emphasise their isolation in some areas of the book. Badoe also considers themes such as human trafficking and the sex trade, and illegal immigration.
That said, the book is not overly sad or hard to read. Between the emotive sections there were moments of happiness and beautiful human connections and always the undercurrent of magic and mystery which kept the tone graceful and bright. The placing of ancient ideas within a contemporary context made for an effectively balanced story and the powerful young characters, especially Sante, the strong heroine, made it an inspiring read, particularly for teenagers who can relate to a lot of her emotions as she grows up and finds her place in the world.