“Listen,” he says to her sternly, “I will tell you a secret about your demons: they are never stronger than you.” -From The White Mary, page 337-
Marika Vecera is an talented journalist who has traveled to the most troubled parts of the world and risked her life to witness war, genocide, torture and famine. She has learned to push her emotions down and keep others at an emotional distance in order to do her job. Robert Lewis is the person who inspires her – an elusive, troubled, and hard-edged journalist who rarely gives interviews. When Marika learns that Lewis has apparently commited suicide (although his body is never recovered), she decides to hunker down in Boston and write Lewis’ biography, while tentatively exploring a new relationship with the sweet and perceptive Seb. But when an elderly missionary reveals he may have seen Lewis in the jungles of Papua New Guinea after Lewis’ supposed suicide, the information motivates Marika to leave everything she knows to search for him.
Kira Salak, herself a noted journalist, writes knowledgeably about Papua New Guinea – an exotic place which is home to virtually all of the known species of birds of paradise, as well as more kinds of orchids than any other country. But it is also 85% tropical rain forest and jungle buzzing with insects, and filled with swamps, leeches, crocodiles, and snakes. It is here where most of the novel takes place – plunging Marika into a harsh environment filled with danger. There are graphic descriptions of rape, torture and murder as Salak tells Marika’s story which is really about one woman’s journey from despair to hope.
At times the narrative felt emotionally detached – a parallel to the Marika’s character – as though the reader was sitting from afar and watching the tale unfold. Nonetheless, I was gripped by the story and horrified by the more graphic images. Like all good stories, this one had me turning the pages long after I should have gone to bed.
The White Mary is Salak’s first novel, although she has written two non-fiction books and been a contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure magazine. Salak has won the PEN award for journalism as well. Here is an author who is as interesting as her work – and for that alone, I would recommend reading this book. Be forewarned, however, it is not a novel for the faint of heart.
The White Mary is due to be released by Henry Holt and Company in August 2008.