Monday, June 30, 2008

The White Mary by Kira Salak - 351 pgs

Book CoverThe White Mary is the gripping and thrilling account of one woman's hellacious journey into the unforgiving jungles of Papua New Guinea and her struggles to get out alive. Marika Vecera is an adventuresome war reporter who is searching for Robert Lewis, a fellow reporter believed to be dead. When Marika finds evidence that Lewis may be alive, she embarks on an expedition halfway across the world to uncover the truth. Her growing unease with her boyfriend Seb's intimacy is just another excuse to embark on the odyssey that will bring her close to death and ultimately to the rediscovery of herself. Along the way she meets Tobo, a witch doctor and guide whom she hires to help her navigate through the wilderness, and who teaches her the ways of survival in the treacherous landscape. She discovers tribes from primitive societies whose superstitions and customs defy what even she, a well traveled and experienced explorer, can imagine. As her quest for Lewis continues, she finds that she must answer some difficult questions about herself, and above all, survive the experience.

Reading this book was a very visceral experience. It spoke to the questions and realities that we all must face. The action and conflict was delectable, but the level of self-introspection of the characters was the real heart of the story. The characters reflected on the questions that scare us, excite us, and repel us, never shying away from the uncomfortable answers that they attained. Many of the conundrums of religion were presented, as well as ruminations on war and the nature of humanity. At times, the philosophies expressed were uncomfortable and unsettling, but they were very finely etched, making them compelling rather than repugnant.

Another aspect of the book that heightened the experience was the author's tremendous way of conveying the atmosphere of the story. I literally felt hot and sticky reading about the searing conditions in the jungle. Salak's lush and descriptive language brought the Marika's world right into my living room. It was almost unbearable to read about the clouds of mosquitoes and the lack of provisions, especially the scarceness of water. The effect was one of complete immersion in the setting. It was an extremely convincing and detailed account of hardship that I found remarkable.

That said, I found the main character to be exceedingly unsympathetic and unlikable. She seemed to operate out of a sense of bitterness and detachment that I could barely tolerate. With all that she witnessed and experienced, one would think that she would display some sense of wonderment or awe, be it negative or positive, but this character had none. She was jaded and cold, always unheeding of advice and shrugging off the concern of the people who cared for her. She was so headstrong it was a bit annoying, always doing things the way she wanted, never learning from her experiences or that of those around her. At times, she disregarded and ignored cultural conventions that were hundreds if not thousands of years old, putting her at odds with the very people who were sheltering her. Her inability to love or be loved was chafing and convoluted. The only strong emotion she expressed was an obsession with Lewis that was quite inconsistent with her previous behavior. By the time she actually achieved some personal growth and began to change, I had given up on her. Her hard-boiled attitude had driven me away, and I wasn't able to trust that she had changed. Her self-revelation came too late, and I didn't care.

By contrast, Tobo, her guide, was a a great character. He was humble and knowledgeable about his surroundings, and although uncomplicated by western beliefs, he was honorable, respectful and wise. I found his unending bewilderment with Marika amusing and charming. His beliefs in the spirit world and of his magic was intriguing, and it seemed as though he understood Marika and her situation much better than she did herself. He was by far the best character in the book, and I wish he had been more of a feature.

This book was a mixed bag. I liked so much of it, and felt that at times it was a great work. However, the main character was a niggling disappointment coloring the story for me, and I was never able to fully lose myself in the pages. All the other elements of the novel worked perfectly. The story had depth and substance, and the sense of place was outstanding. The mood and flavor of the story, though dark, was intoxicating. Great premise and execution, but the main character was a letdown.


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