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My Heart Is Not My Own by Michael Wuitchik

My Heart Is Not My Own

by Michael Wuitchik

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It is seems strange to be talking about truth that comes through works of fiction but there are certain novels that seem to have that characteristic. That is what makes the novel unique as a means of communication to any other form - the ability to pass information on to a reader through a narrative. And that is certainly the case for Michael Wuitchik's insightful novel My Heart Is Not My Own.

Page 6-7

In my hands is her diary - the diary of Mariama Lahai.
I rub my fingers along the grime of the leather. Nadia is on her knees in front of me, her robe still open. Her grip on my leg tightens. When she speaks, her voice is tentative, as if she is out of breath. "John? Whose diary is it? Is it the Sierra Leonean nurse, the one whose picture you have?"
"Yes, it's her. It was 1999, the year our medical group was evacuated from Freetown. My God, its been ten years. She . . ." My own words sound hollow to me - I'm trying to reassure Nadia, but I feel off balance. Unsure. "This part of her diary must have been written after I was airlifted out. She . . ."
"Might be still alive," she whispers, almost inaudibly. She nods slightly, her eyes darting from the diary to me and back to the diary. Her face crinkles and strains, as if the muscles under her skin can't settle on what she's feeling.

The plot of the story is about Dr. John Rourke who is trying to come to terms with the horrors he witnessed while being a relief doctor in Sierra Leone. But the beauty of the narrative is that the author is a retired psychologist who actually did relief work in Sierra Leone. Wuitchik is able to incorporate actual medical terms and existing cultural references from Sierra Leone into the narrative. But it isn't a completely dry story either. Wuitchik incorporates a wooden mask into the story that has strange mystical powers over the protagonist as well.

Link to my complete review ( )
  steven.buechler | Nov 5, 2013 |
Dr. John Rourke worked in Sierra Leone for a time until he was evacuated because of the civil war. He was airlifted to safety but he left behind two friends, Dr. Momodu Camara and Nurse Mariama Lahaie. Ten years later, he lives with his wife Nadia in Vancouver and is still haunted by his experiences, but he refuses to speak of them: “Nadia and I have never told each other our own stories – hers about Croatia during the war, mine about my last days in Freetown. We’ve kept the hurts secret.” Then he receives a parcel containing Mariama’s diary and phone calls concerning a mask given to him by Momodu which motivate him to return to West Africa to search for his friends, although he realizes that both might be dead.

The book is sometimes a harrowing read. Mariama’s diary discusses what happened to her and what she witnessed after John left; she describes gang rapes, amputations by machetes, and other atrocities committed in the war. The novel also touches on other topics such as child soldiers, bush wives, clitoral circumcision and African secret societies.

The book begins slowly and did not really grab my attention. Part I, set in Vancouver, focuses on John and Nadia’s life together and their “game of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ about their pasts. The dialogue seems stilted and unnatural and there is little that catches the reader’s interest. John says, “’I often tell my patients that you have to go through the dark to find the light – I guess that applies to all of us.’” This signals what John will have to do, but it is only when he begins his journey that I became fully engaged with the novel.

It is Mariama’s diary that I found most compelling. Her descriptions of what happened to the women (“’Everything is worse for the women’”) ring true. Unfortunately, Mariama herself is not a credible character. She is “painfully beautiful” and “intelligent” and “honest” and “loving and kind” and a “particularly good nurse” who has a “powerful presence.” Her courage and resilience know no bounds. She has the respect, verging on reverence, of all the women. Her stoicism is never-ending: “Accept the good, for they are God’s blessings. Accept the bad, for God works in mysterious ways. Accept. That is how she sustains herself – her sense of life.” She is just too good to be true.

The sub-plot concerning the mask I found largely irrelevant. That entire part of the story could have been omitted. The green Nissan that follows John across Sierra Leone is also superfluous; it is intended to add suspense but doesn’t really succeed in doing so. There are other elements of plot that are troublesome as well. The timing of the arrival of the parcel containing the diary and the phone calls about the mask are coincidental. John asks, “And why, after hearing nothing at all in ten years, have I received something connected to both Mariama and Momodu in the same week? A coincidence?” Yes!

The technique of mentioning something and then dropping it without explanation is annoying. For example, when John is given the mask, Momodu tells him, “’If we meet again, I will ask you for it. If we do not, trust the Kuranko.’” What Kuranko means is not explained until much later, although it also becomes clear that John knew all along. Withholding information is not playing fair with the reader. This technique is also used when John tries on the mask for the first time; we are not told what he experiences until much later.

There are some events that require explanation. For example, Mariama writes about an encounter with a man “wearing women’s hair, and beads, and a medicine bag around his neck” who has a smell “like long-dead bodies.” She follows him and “All day we walk and not once does that man look behind” and he speaks to her only after they reach a camp. Why did he behave so strangely and, considering his identity, why wasn’t he more assertive in assisting her in previous encounters? John rereads the diary several times and so would have come across the description of a friend as “a good doctor, sure, but that is not all he was – not in Sierra Leone” yet he never puzzled over this statement?

Despite these flaws in plotting, the book is still worth a read. It covers a conflict that many people know little about and it does have a positive message about the possibility of love and hope in the midst of unimaginable brutality. ( )
  Schatje | Jul 15, 2013 |
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With his wife about to have their first baby in Vancouver, Dr. John Rourke is haunted by memories of his time as a relief doctor in Sierra Leone. When a package arrives for him from Sierra Leone he realizes he needs to go back to learn what happened to the people he left behind.… (more)

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