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The White Mary by Kira Salak
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Journalist Kira Salak’s debut novel, //The White Mary//, might make me seriously reconsider my long held doubts about that ancient cliché, “write what you know.” Salak, the first woman to travel overland across Papua New Guinea, brings that experience powerfully to life in the story of a woman’s search through Papua New Guinea for her hero, who has been assumed dead.
Marika Vecera, a hard charging war journalist, takes time off at home after a particularly harrowing near death experience in the Congo. Suffering PTSD and unable to come to grips with her own vulnerabilities, she begins a relationship with a kind, wise, PhD candidate, Seb. When she learns of the suicide in Indonesia of her hero, Robert Lewis, "probably the most famous writer and foreign correspondent of his generation… [who:] had devoted his life to relating the plights of those suffering most in the world," Marika decides to write his biography. Doing research, she finds a letter sent by an evangelist who claims he saw Lewis alive in Papua New Guinea. Unable to accept Seb’s love and tortured by the possibility that her role model might be alive, Markia sets off.
It is in those portions of the novel that take place in the vast, lush, and potentially lethal interiors of Papua New Guinea that //The White Mary// truly comes to life. Salak captures the strange dizzying duality of her setting, at once beautiful and brutal, in Marika’s long slogging jungle trek.

"Beauty intrudes upon her. Flocks of red and green parrots. Butterflies of blue and gold dancing over the black water. Crowned pigeons with their real headdress of gray plumage...the same way walking down a city street, she might … catch sight of a face that awakens something vital in her. A longing, perhaps. A burst of compassion. It should not be hard, she tells herself, to know this beauty."

Beset by adversity and confronting her own demons, Marika soldiers on, indefatigable in her search, Tobo, her guide and a native sorcerer, her only companion. In theme if not style, //The White Mary// shares much with Heart of Darkness: protagonist’s disintegrating as they push forward into an increasing forbidding interior, their explorations of the place violence and compassion inhabit in the human heart and our society.
And yet the tale of //The White Mary// is strangely biformed; the narrative moves back and forth between Marika, in the jungle facing all manner of emotional and physical hazards, and living in “safe” Boston with Seb. The former scenes almost quiver on the page, resplendent scenery, finely wrought emotions, the characters rich as the setting. By contrast, the Boston parts read as flat, her boyfriend Seb torpidly two dimensional, more character sketch than full-blooded character.
With a writer plainly talented as Salak, one should not discount the possibility that this is intentional, a comment on the way we live verses life in the wild. And if not, this short-coming is certainly forgivable in the face of //The White Mary//’s gripping, often perfectly honed prose. No doubt this author has seen more than her fair-share of the darkness that dwells in the human heart. I very much doubt readers will find another book this year – and certainly no debut! – that so sublimely explores those shadowy realms and offers the glimmer that one can come out on the other side with something of themselves left intact.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
October 19, 2009 – Shelved

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