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Katie Crouch’s ‘Embassy Wife’ is an antic novel about expats in Africa

The disclaimer comes late in “Embassy Wife,” Katie Crouch’s antic new novel: “Amanda sipped her champagne obediently and thought about how you could love a place deeply without understanding it at all.” The champagne — sipped in a posh hotel in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, one of the least densely populated countries in the world — really makes this insight sparkle.

Amanda has come to Namibia with her husband, Mark, an unlikely Fulbright scholar studying a subject, the German genocide of the Nama people in the early 1900s, of which he is so clearly ignorant that a reader suspects a ruse — rightly. As it turns out, Mark has unfinished emotional business in Namibia, where he served briefly in the Peace Corps 20 years earlier.

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Conveniently, Mark’s conscience has caught up with him at the very moment when it can best propel him, Amanda and their 9-year-old daughter, Meg, into a madcap plot involving the very woman he wronged all those years ago, who, also conveniently, now goes by a different name.

Much of the novel revolves around another “trailer,” as the spouses of official-ish expats are called: Persephone, whose purportedly sexy husband, Adam, is a legal counsel for the U.S. Embassy, making Persephone “an—no, the—Embassy Wife.” This in turn makes her a font of knowledge, gossip and opinion about diplomatic etiquette, style and intrigue, which is sometimes interesting, often amusing and occasionally cringe-inducing. (“No matter how modern attitudes got, or how empowered mothers became, as an Embassy Wife [or Husband!], lots of sex was something you signed up for.”)

And then there’s Mila Shilongo, wife of the minister of transportation, who appears to Amanda like this: “This goddess was half a foot taller than either her or Persephone; every limb seemed to stream from her body, graceful as water. Her skin was dark, polished, and poreless; her face, a masterpiece of planes and curves, centered by long-lashed eyes the color of maple syrup.”

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Mila’s perfectly conceived daughter Taimi, who gets into all kinds of trouble with Meg, is politely hilarious. “Thank you for this excellent visiting opportunity,” she says, and later, “Thank you for letting us enjoy video entertainment.”

Hijinks ensue, and schemes within schemes — including a rhino-saving project that somehow involves Persephone babysitting a rhino overnight; a sub-rosa jewel-trading venture; and some silly CIA business. With a lot of overlap, it’s hard to say what’s comical and what’s in earnest — but there’s enough of both to keep a reader happily engaged, and, because the author has lived in Namibia, there are plenty of probably true facts to savor about the landscape and quirks of language and expat behavior. That is to say, here’s the disclaimer the novel should have come with: Don’t take this book too seriously, and it will entertain you, seriously.

Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife.”

Embassy Wife

By Katie Crouch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 pp. $27

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