My Heart is Not My Own is a heart wrenching novel that follows former relief doctor John Rourke back to Sierra Leone in search of his two former colleagues and friends: a gifted nurse named Mariama Lahai and a doctor named Momodu Camara. The last time he saw his friends was the night the rebels raided their hospital in Freetown. Dr. John was evacuated immediately leaving Mariama to deliver a young woman’s baby. Momodu also fled, leaving Dr. John with his heirloom wooden mask for safe keeping. 10 years later, the arrival of Mariama’s journal in the mail sparks a need to return for Dr. John to uncover the fates of his friends and find closure for himself. Half set through Dr. John’s eyes while travelling through Sierra Leone, and half recounted through the written passages in Mariama’s journal, the novel is a compelling, emotional journey from a war torn past to a healing present.
Writing something like this can be difficult. Not only for the task of describing versions of truly horrible scenes and experiences that occured, but also in attempting to fictionalize a brutally true war time through the words and eyes of a Westerner. Even though the author undoubtedly did immense research and used as much authenticity as possible, it is a challenging position to be in that treads a precarious line between exploring and exploiting. However, I think Wuitchik’s use of Dr. John as first-person narrative was a very smart and effective way to anchor this story. Through the eyes of John, we get to see Sierra Leone as he sees it. And though he is very informed, experienced and educated, he still remains ignorant to many of the deeper cultural roots and reasons that have created the country he’s visiting. Like Dr. John, we can’t know the whole story, but we get to see pieces of it through his eyes and his understanding. As a character, John is a little flat, although he did grow on me as the novel progressed. His main purpose seems to be a funnel for information, to ask questions and remark on the contrast between what he’s used to and what he’s experiencing. But thankfully, he is surrounded by strong, interesting characters that carry him through his journey and offer the story a authentic punch. Mohamed his determined Kamajor driver. Bonnie, the insightful two-spirited colleague. And of course, the words of Mariama carrying him across the country as he follows her harrowing footsteps.
Whereas Part 1 took it’s time introducing the novel, the story finally hits its stride in Part 2 when Dr. John lands back in Sierra Leone. He arrives with two things, the leather bound journal belonging to a Mariama and the wooden mask from Momodu. His intention is to return them both to their owners, hoping they are still alive. Although the storyline with the Kamajor mask and it’s magic opens the door for some very interesting insight on African secret societies, I don’t think it’s omission would have lessened the story. The strength really lies in the search for Mariama and her personal accounts as a rebel captive. As Dr John searches for her deeper and deeper into the African townships, he learn about the legs of her journey, as each step took her farther into dangerous and unpredictable conditions. Her unyielding faith and savvy pulls us through some brutal scenes and recollections while her voice has the ability to see both the victim and the oppressor in each person she encounters. Her time with young rebel boys and girls are particularly unsettling, but her eloquent, poetic confessions are the real heartbeat in the story. Kudos goes to Wuitchik for writing about “women’s business” so powerfully.
This novel introduce’s a beautiful, vibrant culture in a time of turmoil and demonstrates the resilience, mystery and strength that resides in the people there. After reading, I found myself interested in learning more of the facts suggested in the novel and I think that is a pretty excellent indication of great storytelling. Michael Wuitchik also writes about his personal experiences on his blog and many of his inspirations for his novel.