There's an eerie, existential quality about Melanie Finn's new novel, Shame. What tiny, mundane choices determine our fate? Why does life cut one way, not another? For Pilgrim Jones, a young American whose life of globetrotting entitlement unravels after she is dumped by her human rights lawyer husband for another woman, it is a sudden instinctive turn of her car's steering wheel to avoid a dog. A moment that drenches her in tragedy and sends her life off on a wildly different tack.

She flees a tiny Swiss village, books a flight at random to Tanzania, joins a safari and goes to ground in a dead-end hamlet, where streets meander off into endless bush that stretches unbroken to Kenya, "relentless, interminable, muttering on until the sky".

Pilgrim is haunted by a life-shattering event; her car spared the dog but killed three children. She is a Kindermorderin: child murderer. Checking into Magulu's Goodnight Bar and Inn, she waits and wonders, yielding to her fate. "When you have reached the end of yourself, what else is there?"

So begins a powerful, sometimes hallucinatory odyssey, a "malleable narrative" where rationality battles magic, cruelty rubs shoulders with kindness, and a tormented Pilgrim struggles with guilt and shame as she faces "the intense vertigo of a totally blank future", seeking to atone for her deed.

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Befriended by a doctor and a policeman, and menaced by a Ukrainian mercenary, Pilgrim takes possession of a fetish, a box of human body parts. She consults Mr Sese, an elderly witchdoctor in a polyester suit who offers her tea. "Madam, the nature of such magic is very sly. It uses people. And it has come to you by whatever means. It has come to you."

As Pilgrim travels towards possible redemption, propelled towards her fate "in the most honest place on earth", she is hunted by two men from her past.

Finn, a former journalist and Hollywood screenwriter whose 2004 debut, Away From You was listed for the Orange Prize and the Impac Dublin Literary Award, deftly cuts between past and present, Europe and Africa, the filament between order and chaos in precise, vivid prose. Pilgrim's progress takes us deep into a primeval place, far from today's media narrative of a new Africa shimmering with economic potential. Her novel is also a paean by an Old Africa Hand to a magical continent of silent forests, slow, dark rivers, wild green mangroves; a world populated by child ghosts, haunted whites and AK-47-toting rebels. It is through this heart of darkness, a landscape rich in possibilities, that Pilgrim stumbles towards the light.

Shame
by Melanie Finn
(Orion $37.99)

Freelance journalist Peter Huck covers US affairs for the Herald.

- Canvas