Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers – The Autobiography: Kate Adie

I have to object to the subtitle of this book – I do not consider this an autobiography. It’s a fascinating collection of stories from the front line of reporting in war zones, with a couple of chapters about how Adie got started in the business. However, the truly personal side of events is missing. I kept comparing it to Aiden Hartley’s “The Zanzibar Chest” which I read last year. Hartley was a war reporter working for Reuters predominantly in African countries; his career ended when his father died and he had a nervous breakdown. His book is compelling, each chapter a more gruelling war, in which he is fully engaged. His accounts from the working front line are balanced with accounts of the social life of reporters and photographers living on the edge, and he doesn’t spare the seedier details of alcohol and drug abuse, and includes enough information about his romantic life to give us greater insight to his character and personality. Adie, on the other hand, manages to maintain a professional distance and only once or twice in the book she admits to breaking down and crying over the horrors that she’s witnessed. Her private life is curiously and frustratingly absent. By the end of the book I felt like I knew very little about Adie the person. Reading one anecdote after another about one war after another became a chore lacking the crucial element of a more personal view.

Having made my complaints, I must admit that there were some interesting titbits such as when she made her views on religion plain visiting the Vatican and describes: “the peculiar maleness everywhere – fussy young priests skittering around and fat cardinals with jewellery gliding like Daleks over the marble.” (p.132) And the odd time or two when she loses her patience and thumps someone! (Unfortunately I forgot to make a note of those references – sorry!).

The chapter on the war in Northern Ireland is interesting, not least because it’s so ignored by the majority of the English. I think any African familiar with war would find much that is familiar in her account of this conflict. For example, while we are currently horror-struck over the recent cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, did you know about the cholera outbreak in Belfast?
“…the Divis Flats in central Belfast. The Divis were notorious, never mind for being a bastion of republican sympathy, but also for being the only place in Europe to have experienced an outbreak of cholera in the late twentieth century.” (p. 163)

There is also plenty of humour. When under heavy fire in Beirut, she gets stuck in a shop for several hours:

“Thus I found myself stuck – and in heaven – in Beirut’s largest shoe shop. Three full hours of battle raged outside while I went through every pair of shoes in the basement. Finally, when the coast was clear, I staggered back to the hotel with three boxes of elegant shoes. The other journalists looked up from the bar enquiringly: ‘Front line,’ I said, heavy retail action.”

There were a couple of major omissions; she includes a photograph from Rwanda, but writes nothing about it; and there are a couple of photographs with members of her birth family, but writes nothing at all about how she was reunited with them (she had been adopted as a baby).

Still a fascinating book. Still well worth reading. And still pretty amazing for anyone to have done all that she’s done and risked her life so often, and to have survived – apparently – mentally and physically intact.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Lionel Shriver: Double Fault

Shriver is best known for her 2005 Orange Prize-winning novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which I’ve yet to read. Double Fault analyses the marriage of two professional tennis players, from the day they meet to the day they split up. The difficult ending is inevitable and foreseeable, so I’m giving nothing away. Shriver’s skill lies in her handling of dialogue and her ability to show the twists and turns followed by the mind of a young woman critically lacking in self-confidence. This is a modern marriage, a “partnership” between equals, but problems arise when each partner is equally driven by an overwhelmingly competitive spirit.

At times this is an agonizing and frustrating read; what propels the reader on is wanting to know how and why, ultimately, the relationship ends. The “why” can be difficult to answer, but when we understand the female character’s reasons, we then understand how marriage is still based on the assumption that one partner, inevitably the male, will take the lead in the relationship. Can a marriage of equally successful and equally dominant personalities succeed? According to Shriver, no.