A first novel is a brave venture. Both of these, The Strength of Bone and My Heart is Not My Own, are in their own ways laudable, yet neither, likewise, is completely free of problems.
The two books have many similarities. Each is the first novel by Canadians whose day jobs as medical doctors had them serving for a time in the countries where their stories are set—Lucie Wilk in Malawi, Michael Wuitchik in Sierra Leone. Both books similarly do something slightly disconcerting: after leading the reader to assume the tale will be about a white foreign doctor working in an African hospital, each veers sharply to offer the substantial story of black African nurses who get involved with the visiting white doctors.
The Strength of Bone begins with Torontonian Henry Bryce arriving at Malawi’s Blantyre airport, about to take a post at the local hospital where he will work with a crusty Australian named Ellison and a staff of Malawians. One, a nurse named Iris, forms a kind of unspoken alliance with Bryce by doing things that perplex Ellison and the senior Malawians, like repainting the dingy wards in bright colours. The story intensifies when the team takes off on a field trip to a place that turns out to be Iris’s ancestral village. There, she shifts to the forefront, wrestling with the contradictions and demons that confront her life while the visiting Canadian, Bryce, undertakes odd things such as climbing the local sacred mountain, getting lost and needing to be rescued.
In My Heart Is Not My Own, John Rourke, now practising in Vancouver, receives, through circuitous channels, a battered diary belonging to a nurse named Mariama who was his colleague ten years earlier in war-torn Sierra Leone. Mariama penned the diary while imprisoned by RUF rebels (the raping, marauding child soldiers famous for cutting off people’s arms). Rourke decides he needs to travel back to Sierra Leone to look for his former co-worker, taking with him a shamanistic mask that has been hanging on his office wall like a kind of tourist souvenir. Mariama’s story is told through vivid excerpts from the diary, with Rourke, the foil, trying to find her without any evidence she is even still alive.
The women in both books come off as strong survivors, caught between the city and the village, between traditional beliefs and western medicine. Stuck in cultures with strict gender roles, they struggle to adjust to the shifting realities of both their times and their societies while the western male characters turn into sort of supporting actors. Wilk’s Henry Bryce is, for Iris, a mentor, a teasing (unconsummated) love interest and a case to be rescued. Wuitchik’s John Rourke, an obstetrician who served in field hospitals during the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the civil war in Sierra Leone, is a self-described “medical cowboy” with a penchant for nurses (his wife, a Croat, turns out to have worked the same war he did though they did not meet until Vancouver). For Mariama he was a mentor, a brief (one-night stand) love interest and then a lost soul she watched scramble with the rest of the ex-pats to board a fleeing helicopter. The men have a lot to live down and they attempt to do so: Bryce by struggling to decide whether or not he is going to “go native”; Rourke by deciding to abandon his new and pregnant wife and return to Sierra Leone to try to track down Mariama.
Through it all, Lucie Wilk’s prose is terse and spare. “In Toronto the hospitals are neat white boxes, packaged like takeout containers,” she writes. “The stink of illness is swept clean and the suffering is tucked into bed with the curtains drawn. Here in Blantyre, bodies are wet with the sweat of prolonged struggle and the air is thick with the sour odour of a losing battle.” Wuitchik’s My Heart Is Not My Own, although vivid and engaging, particularly as Rourke travels though the Sierra Leone countryside in search of Mariama, unfortunately slips whenever the character gets close to a woman. Wuitchik portrays his first person -narrator (seemingly straight up and without irony) as God’s gift to women. He never meets a nurse who can resist him and the encounters wincingly evoke Harlequin romances, whether making love with his wife—“We’re in the garden … Misty ribbons of steam rise up like ghosts from the slate patio. I’ve prepared a lunch of cheeses, smoked salmon and a baguette. Nadia is drinking Perrier, I’m having a glass of wine. Her eyes are as full of love as eyes can be”—or with Mariama, who recounts their brief coupling in her diary—“I never have a man who love me like he do. He put his tongue in my ear, askin to come in. You come in! my eyes say to him. You are welcome to come in.” One love scene reads: “she slides her body on top of mine, and again she takes my hands, one on each side of my body, stretched out, Christlike, as she brushes against me, her nipples painting long strokes against my skin.”
Two intensely interesting aspects (one might argue, the core) of both books are unfortunately addressed by their writers only obliquely: the presumption of the western writer telling the life stories of African women and the presumption of outsider characters—the doctors—moving into foreign places and situations. The reader (or at least this one) feels compelled to psychoanalyze the doctors, mostly because the authors did so only sparingly. Both are propelled to a large degree by guilt. Bryce failed to save his own small child who died of cancer back in Toronto. “[Henry] started planning the trip when he knew he’d lost her. When it was official. This is why he is here … one last lurching effort to hold on to things, aspects of life that can be grasped, like where you live, what you do, who you help.” Rourke failed to protect either nurse Mariama or a newborn he and she had just delivered from a dying mother during his last days in Freetown. His leaping onto a helicopter to save his own skin has bothered him for ten years, causing him to lose confidence in obstetrics and turn to psychiatry.
The idea of guilt-tormented white men seeking some kind of expiation in the back corners of Africa is a theme that demands examination. “Westerners off to Africa to do good” is such a recurring trope that it cannot be allowed to stand as self-evident; everyone has a right to know what is proper. Are Malawians allowed to go to Canada or Australia to work out their personal demons? More analysis is needed and I looked eagerly in both books to find some. But the looming question remained: why should Africa and Africans—and African women in particular—have to put up with such characters using their countries and situations as laboratories to work out their own problems?