The White Mary, by Kira Salak

I recently received an advanced reader’s copy of The White Mary by Kira Salak to review from the publisher, Henry Holt. I was excited to learn of the novel, as I was an avid fan of Salak’s wonderful non-fictional narrative of her kayaking tour to Timbuktu, “The Cruelest Journey”.

Salak is a unique phenomenon and a wild spirit – traveling alone as a woman to places most men would be afraid to go in a group. Her non-fiction travel works capture the fear, wonder, and strangeness of traveling alone, a sort of female incarnation of Paul Theroux. I was looking forward to her first fictional work (although one wonders just how fictional it is, exactly). I was not disappointed.

The White Mary tells the tale of Marika Vecera, a journalist/war correspondent. The early parts of novel intertwine her experiences in Zaire reporting on genocide with a somewhat mysterious journey through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. We eventually learn that Marika is chasing the ghost of Robert Lewis, a journalist she worships and who inspired her career. She’s also chasing some ghosts of her own; her time in Zaire has scarred her deeply. The White Mary is in fact an extraordinarily powerful portrait of a person who has “seen too much”. Marika’s near-death experience in the Congo has left her emotionally numb, and walled off from the care of those closest to her. Salak’s rendering of Marika’s psychological problems is done in pitch-perfect detail. The novel is sometimes adult, brutal and violent, and not for early teens or the faint of heart.

Just as folk musicians perform songs in pairs, it’s sometimes interesting to read & review books in pairs. At the same time as I was reading The White Mary, I was also consuming “The Painter of Battles” by the renowned author Arturo Perez-Reverte (one of my favorite authors). The Painter of Battles covers very similar territory in some respects –
the protagonist there has “seen too much” as a war photographer and has given way to despair, retiring to paint a battle that spans all historical battles, and to avoid all human interaction (interestingly one of the key characters in The White Mary is a war photographer). Where the Painter of Battles is deeply philosophical and contemplative, the White Mary is visceral; the Painter of Battles is carefully drawn, exquisitely written and intriguing to read. And yet, three weeks later, the Painter of Battles is not finished, and The White Mary yielded in two sittings. It’s that compelling; I had to finish it. Perez-Reverte’s prose is smoother and more ornate, even in translation (or perhaps because of it), whereas Salak’s prose is more muscular and direct. The writing in The White Mary is occasionally awkward but still compares favorably with that of such a distinguished author as Perez-Reverte.

Salak’s Marika is an extraordinarily well-drawn character; I never doubted her reality for a moment. And Salak regularly captures one of the key aspects of travel – the shock of experiencing fundamentally different cultural assumptions. Marika for example, is sent to the “women’s hut” when she is menstruating, where she rages at the artificial and (to her, of course) ludicrous belief system that requires it. Marika’s progress through something like post-traumatic stress disorder is carefully and believably painted, and you root for her to come back even as she spirals downward in self-destructive behavior.

In short, the White Mary is a powerful and gripping first novel, a cautionary tale full of danger, travel, and adventure, and at the same time gives deep insight into the human condition.

(If you’d like to explore the geography of The White Mary, I’ve plotted many of the locations mentioned in my Books/Google Maps mashup, CodexMap.

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