All You'll See is Sky book cover

A Memoir of Tragedy and Redemption in Africa

Author: Janet A. Wilson

Janet Wilson has had enough of her staid existence – of coloring within the lines, of abdicating her dreams, of the mundanity of daily life and an unexciting marriage. With or without her husband, she is determined to make a 25,000-mile drive across Africa, from Cape Town to Cairo. This time, she’ll answer the call to adventure, the struggle and strife of truly being alive, regardless of what’s smart, what’s responsible, what other people think she can and should do as a woman, a wife, a mother. Along the way, she might rediscover meaning, reconnect with her home, repair her marriage, and confront death and poverty head-on.

I have complicated feelings about All You’ll See Is SkyEver since I was a kid, I’ve been in love with the entire continent of Africa. This started as a love for the animals (big cats for the win!) and expanded into a love for the varying geography (deserts, rainforests, savannahs, beaches, rivers, you name it!) and people. When I finally made my own dream come true and went to Tanzania in 2022, I realized that Africa is even more expansive, more beautiful, more complicated, than anything a nature show could hope to depict. I want more, because once you meet Africa in all her glory, you don’t want to be anywhere else.

Because of this continued fascination, I was excited to live vicariously through Janet. But Africa, like many other places, is more than just beautiful geography. There is extreme poverty, tragedy, racism, genocide, war, oppressive regimes, and health concerns to counter the continent’s undeniable beauty, variety, creativity, and vibrant cultures. That’s not the kind of thing you can lightly tour through . . . and All You’ll See is Sky treads (and in my opinion) steps over a delicate but indelible line. You should not, after all, seek the spice of life through the misfortune and deprivation of others.

Let me take a step back. We begin with Janet, living in Canada with her husband. Both were originally born in South Africa and left due to apartheid. They live outwardly good lives. They seem wealthy, comfortable, blessed even. But Janet is haunted by the expectations of a lifetime and ready to finally shatter the mold and do something to feel alive again. So, far, this is perfectly understandable. But her caviler attitude towards her husband and her marriage is never fully explained. Tom does not want to do the trip. It will put them in debt, take away all their savings, and present a lot of risk. His objections make sense . . . yet she has delivered an ultimatum and, because he does not want to lose her, he joins her.

One of the first pictures I took on my first journey to Tanzania in 2022. Selous Game Reserve.

One of the first pictures I took on my first journey to Tanzania in 2022. Selous Game Reserve.

Tom seems like a good man. I never could fully understand what was wrong with this marriage. The minor moments of bad humor or dismissiveness didn’t seem incurable; all these issues are just the normal rough and tumble of having other people in our lives. The marriage doesn’t seem bad, and other than Janet’s attitude of apathy, there really isn’t much discontent either. So why the drama? Perhaps there was something more (surely), but we aren’t allowed to see it. Indeed, we see very little of the couple’s dynamic and what we do see isn’t egregious. It’s regular life.

It’s difficult to criticize a memoir, honestly, because who am I to pick apart someone else’s story and how and what they chose to tell?  Yet . . . I needed more to empathize, to be invested. The feeling I got, honestly, was of a privileged woman who was bored, and that’s not a great start.

What Janet does reveal, beautifully, is the details of each location she visits, the harrowing journey of the couple’s Landcruiser, and the various interesting ways different African mechanics make it roadworthy enough to get to the next far away destination. As All You’ll See is Sky continues, the animals and vistas give way to memorials of sadness, of apartheid and memorials to genocide (including places with actual skeletons of the slaughtered displayed in what was once their homes and schools). The touring of someone else’s misery to feel alive, to realize that your life isn’t so bad, is a bit uncomfortable, although not entirely unrelatable. Yet, the author never admits to her own privilege in being able to do this expensive (albeit rough guide journey), or the fact that when it’s all over, she can go to a comfortable home and back to a life complete with health care and a stable political climate.

And then, the tragedy. Janet accidentally runs over and kills a child in Ethiopia. She faces arrest and potentially spending the rest of her life in an Ethiopian jail for the accident. These chapters are so painful, from her depiction of the child’s last look at her, to the roiling feelings of grief that left her unable to function and face the seriousness of prison and never going home.

Bull elephant and babies. Selous Game Reserve. 2022.

More from my Tanzania trip. Bull elephant and babies. Selous Game Reserve. 2022.

But . . . the end of All You’ll See is Sky finds hope through this event, as Janet connects further with Tom, who protects her and extricates her. She learns from the forgiveness of the child’s mother and village and will later go on to take more journeys across Africa. Again, it’s a complicated moment, because everything the author shares makes sense, yet we cringe that her “finding herself” and restructuring her marriage comes at such a price. That nagging, head shaking sarcasm, screaming “privilege” in the back of my mind starts to pipe up again, and while Janet’s grief is raw and undeniable, something doesn’t sit well with me. Perhaps it’s because I never understood what was so dire that this trip was required to “save” these two people with good, although unexciting lives. Perhaps it’s just because I’m a different kind of person entirely, not necessarily needing adrenaline to feel alive (I’m more of the couch and coffee time person). Perhaps it’s because despite the honesty and beauty of the narrative, the author’s relationship traumas and her own dispiritedness are never communicated fully in a way that resonated with me.

In the end, I enjoyed all the brief glimpses of different places and peoples across Africa and the author’s loving depiction of the continent in All You’ll See is Sky. The descriptions made me want to visit Africa again, but finding the beauty and meaning through watching other people suffer and using this pain as a form of personal redemption, made me uncomfortable. Recommended, but with caveats.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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