Sabrina Brawley's Reviews > Souvenirs

Souvenirs by Julia Lauer-Cheenne
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's review
Feb 08, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: read-in-2008, reviewed-for-breeni-books, no-longer-in-my-possession
Recommended to Sabrina by: Breeni Books
Read in February, 2008

Progress and tradition clash in Julia Lauer-Chéenne's debut novella. Set in the seventies during a controversial transformation of the Ivory Coast, Souvenirs follows the journey of a Peace Corps volunteer as she adjusts to the climate and culture of West Africa during her first teaching assignment.

The clash of cultures takes place predominately in the relationship that develops between the volunteer, Ruth, and a local teacher, Kwassi. Ruth falls in love with Kwassi holding traditional Western expectations, not realizing that Kwassi is still tethered to the traditions of his people, which include such rituals as taking multiple wives and surreal methods of healing. Ruth struggles against the need for companionship in light of Kwassi's tribal obligations.

At the same time, Ruth is teaching against a backdrop of uncertainty and turmoil. Africans are reeling against the increasing numbers of French and American tourists and volunteers taking over the countryside. While many natives welcome commercialism and modernization, many others distrust the forced changes. Then there are those in the midst of it all, who will take advantage of whoever presents themselves as most vulnerable. Ruth seems to fit that description well, as evidenced by her multiple encounters with local "law enforcement."

Julia Lauer-Chéenne presents the atmosphere and culture of the region well, providing a basic understanding of the dynamics of the society without bias. No party is unerringly noble; the faults of the American volunteers are represented just as clearly as those of the rebelling locals. Throughout the narrative, the reader remains an outsider, almost as if viewing someone else's dream, but this does not tarnish the vibrance of the story. It enables the reader to fully appreciate the complexity of the situation from many angles. Having the larger turmoil narrowed into the struggles of one couple helps to illustrate the concerns of entire nations. This is not an uplifting book, but one that brings harsh realities to the surface.

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