“‘What you nem?’ she asks. It’s more of a command than a question. Her tone reminds me of the child soldiers during the war: pushy, demanding attention. Many of the bush wives, unwanted in their home villages, ended up here in Freetown as prostitutes. The young men had AK-47s to trade for motorbikes—the girls had nothing but themselves.“
– My Heart is not My Own, Michael Wuitchik
Violent political realities in Sierra Leone and their lasting physical and psychological traumas form the backdrop of Michael Wuitchik’s gritty debut My Heart is not My Own. Once an emergency doctor working in wartorn areas, Dr. John Rourke has never fully recovered from his experiences in Freetown. Now a respected psychologist in Vancouver, he and his wife Nadia, a Croatian refugee, live in an uneasy present, agreeing never to address the horrors they have each seen. But the arrival of a mysterious package—and the news that Nadia is pregnant with their first child—forces John to face his past.
The parcel in question contains the diary of a Sierra Leonan nurse named Mariama Lahai, whom John worked with. Though John was forced to evacuate the night the rebels took control of Freetown, he has never forgiven himself for abandoning Mariama and their doctor friend Momodu Camara, another Sierra Leonan. In Mariama’s diary, he discovers what happened to her in the months after his departure. The subject matter of the novel, seen mostly through these diary entries, is intensely difficult. This fictionalized account of very real brutality doesn’t shy away from rape, mutilation, torture, and murder during the 10-year-long civil war in Sierra Leone.
John returned to Canada with a mask entrusted to his care by Momodu, and psychological trauma, including inability to sleep and strange numbness in his hand. Now, immediately after the arrival of the diary, an anonymous caller phones him to say “The mask want to come home. It is time.” His wife urges him to go back to Sierra Leone, return the mask, and find out what really happened to Mariama and Momodu.
Part One, which introduces us to John as a troubled psychologist, is fairly flat, with little action or engagement with the characters. The search for Mariama and Momodu that begins in Part Two is where the novel takes off. The depictions of West Africa are lush and authentic, taking time to find the beauty in fields of elephant grass or the smells from a cooking pot. The ease with which John slips into the Mende dialect quietly shows how much of his heart he has invested in this country. In Freetown, John hires cab driver Mohamed A. Lee to help get him where he needs to go, and to play detective with him as they search for Mariama. Mohamed is a vibrant character with secrets of his own, and he steals every scene he’s in.
While John and Mohamed chase ghosts across the country, they are in turn pursued by a mysterious car. We’re given more of Mariama’s diary and learn about the atrocities she has lived through, and the novel shows tantalizing glimpses at the secret societies and their medicines that are traditional part of the culture here. Descriptions of Sandei and Poro rituals and the role the mask plays are fascinating. While this is a violent read, violence isn’t the only thing going on here: women are brutalized and oppressed throughout, yet we also see the other side of the coin, the strength women draw from each other and the societies they form. A real sense of magic is woven into the novel through the power of the mask and of the Kamajor hunter society encountered by both Mariama in the past and John in the present. This reminded me a bit of what Guy Gavriel Kay told me: ” I want to erase that complacency, add to reader immersion by showing the world as my characters understood it.” This approach works extremely well in this novel.
At times the writing and especially the dialogue is quite stilted. Dialogue is at its best when the Sierra Leonans are speaking. Wuitchik has a strong ear for this dialect but he doesn’t fare as well with his Canadians, who speak in formalized sentences that don’t feel authentic in a contemporary setting. The plot is most compelling in Mariama’s voice in her diary entries. And some characters come more to life than others. John is a flat, uninteresting conduit for exposition, relaying factual information and backstory and asking the questions the audience wants to ask without ever really moving beyond two-dimensional. Mariama is angelically good and patient and forgiving, and Nadia, who could be an interesting character with her own demons and a quiet jealousy of this woman from her husband’s past is left mostly on the sidelines.
The plot, too, is uneven. There are moments of excellence: seeing what has happened to Mariama in the decade since John left, for example, subtly shows that even when we take our exit, life goes on without us, and people figure out how to get by no matter the circumstances. Scenes with John and Mohamed negotiating for information in a diamond shop or careening along dirt roads brim with excitement and authenticity, while some subplots falter and are outright unnecessary. Several serious coincidences are needed to move the plot forward, and major revelations are obvious to the reader while John is strangely oblivious. The big issue of female circumcision is both focused on and danced around, and feels like it’s there because it’s an important topic that should be there, rather than because it is part of the story being told.
The tone of the novel is incredibly earnest, veering too far at times into lecture mode. Wuitchik, who has worked as a doctor in Sierra Leone, clearly wants western readers to know what happened in Sierra Leone, and the extent of the horror that humans inflicted upon each other. “Short sleeves or long?” the rebels ask their victims before hacking arms off at the elbow or the wrist with a machete. Women are repeatedly gang-raped, and those who choose to become “bush wives” in order to survive their abductions are then rejected by their villages after the war. Babies starve to death or are literally thrown away. These are facts we either rarely hear about in the news in Canada or frequently turn away from. Too often, though, this book forgets that it is meant to tell a story and doesn’t offer any real emotional connection, instead becoming a pulpit, the kind of thing you “should” read because its subject matter is important. Books like Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes, Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly, and Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda also deal with difficult, violent, chaotic history but they never lose the thread of the story they tell or compromise characterization. The history these books set out to share with their readers is all the more vivid and compelling for the emphasis placed on good storytelling. I wonder, actually, if the intent of this book might not have been better captured through non-fiction than through a novel.
That said, there are moments of insight and beauty throughout, for example the parallels John’s First Nations colleague Bonnie draws between this mask and the ones used by some Haida groups. The juxtaposition of the mask as art, something that John has kept hanging on his wall, and as living artefact used in ceremony is striking. And the violence endured in Freetown is written about graphically but respectfully. It never feels exploitative but rather authentic—and devastating. “I am in hell and tears put out no fires there,” Mariama writes. Though it suffers from unevenness, My Heart is not My Own is an informative and heartbreaking first book, one that sheds light on a part of the world that is often ignored or misunderstood in the west.
Three out of five blue pencils
My Heart is Not My Own by Michael Wuitchik, published in Canada by Penguin, © 2013
Book provided to me by Penguin Canada in exchange for a fair review.
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