The White Mary, by Kira Salak. Published 1998 by Henry Holt. Literary fiction.
I got The White Mary as a galley, and normally I try to pace myself when it comes to galleys. I like to read and review books as close as possible to their actual release date, since I want my reviews to be useful and I think they're most useful when an interested reader can get the book right away. When I received The White Mary, a novel by travel writer Kira Salak, I flipped through it and just read the first page. Then I read the second. Then the next time I looked up, I was fifty pages in and still didn't want to put it down.
The story of a freelance reporter named Marika Vecera and drawn from many of Salak's own experiences, The White Mary is absolutely gripping. From page one I was drawn right into Marika's world. Whether she was in Congo, Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Boston, I felt like I was right there with her, watching her close-up, totally absorbed. Marika travels to PNG to search for the legendary Robert Lewis, a reporter who is presumed dead. As the story unfolds we find out why Lewis is important to her, and why she believes he is alive. As a young refugee from the former Czechoslovakia, Marika read something he wrote about her country and felt like only he really understood her. Later, as a professional reporter and adventurer, she continued to idolize him and the news of his death hit her hard. So when she finds out that he may actually be alive and living in a remote area of the forbidding back country of PNG, she is compelled to find him.
The narrative alternates between Marika's search in the dense jungle of PNG and the story of all that lead up to her journey, most importantly her relationship with the protective Seb and some traumatic experiences traveling and working in Congo, and I like the way the story ebbs and flows. The travel sequences can be intense and sometimes it was a relief to flash back to Boston and a world I understand a little better. I also found Marika's personality to be very believable and accurate psychologically. She's a hard-living woman who's seen and been through some of the worst things imaginable, and prides herself on her ability to take care of herself, but she pays a heavy price in her ability to maintain an intimate relationship with a man who genuinely cares for her, as well as in her ability to value her own well-being.
As would anybody. Some of the things these characters go through are horrific, excruciating- the stuff of nightmares- and it would be naive to think these kinds of experiences would just roll off a person. An important theme in the book is redemption and hope- the idea that even after seeing the worst evil the world has to offer, it's possible, through painful, difficult work, to be happy, to feel joy and to give and receive love. The White Mary can be read as one long metaphor for this journey. I read Marika's journey through the jungles of PNG as her journey through her traumas and demons, and I read Seb less as her lover and more as her conscience, a voice leading her out of the jungle and back to herself.
Apart from the psychological truths it offers, The White Mary is absolutely compelling reading. An experienced and lauded travel writer, Salak based the book on many of her own experiences traveling in PNG and elsewhere, and her knowledge shows in her descriptions and attention to detail. While in PNG, Marika loses her shoes and must make the journey barefoot, and that little fact all by itself stuck with me like the thorns in her soles; just a small thing, but one of the many details that drew me in and helped me experience the journey with her. Salak includes a good cast of supporting characters as well, most notably Tobo, a PNG sorcerer and Marika's guide, who could have been a boring, stereotyped wise native but instead had a personality and point of view all his own. I'd recommend The White Mary to unsqueamish fans of character-driven adventure stories, and I'm looking forward to reading Four Corners, her nonfiction memoir of Papua New Guinea. I think The White Mary is going to be a popular book this fall and I expect her other work will get more attention, too- and rightly so. She's a terrific writer and really delivers with The White Mary.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.