Kathryn Para’s debut novel begins at its climax. An injured woman is pushed out of a moving vehicle and dumped onto a roadside in a war-torn Middle Eastern city. As she limps along the road, trying to get her bearings, a dog wanders past her with a bloated hand in its jaws…
Lucky follows the story of Ani Lund, a 30-something Canadian photojournalist who specializes in “conflict” photography. It is Ani’s job to travel to various hotspots in the Middle East and document the brutalities of war. From the very first pages of the novel, Para skillfully ratchets up the suspense. We wonder what horrific incident Ani has just survived. Is it kidnapping? Is it torture? Is it the death of colleagues, friends? Whatever its specifics, we understand that Ani has crossed over: she is no longer an objective witness to war. She has become its victim.
A few bloodstained pages describe an injured Ani wandering along a roadside in an apocalyptic Iraqi landscape, and then the story moves forward a couple of years and we catch up with her in Vancouver. We learn that she cannot bring herself to look at the photographs she took of the mysterious and horrific incident she survived, despite mounting pressure from her publishers to meet their deadlines and turn her photojournalism into something publishable.
The horrors of war and the politics of all the various Middle Eastern conflicts are part of the thematic soup here, but Para’s main interest is the psychological toll that war journalism takes on its practitioners. Much like soldiers deployed to warzones, journalists sometimes suffer from a disease that has been given many names: shellshock, battle fatigue, combat stress and now, of course, post-traumatic stress disorder.
The gruesome events that a journalist witnesses (and sometimes becomes a participant in) during war can cause an injury to the brain, resulting in a series of symptoms that currently fall under the diagnostic umbrella of PTSD, including hallucinations, agitation, numbness, hyper-vigilance and nightmares. Here Para excels: she masterfully exposes how it not only destroys a person’s psyche but also manifests itself in destructive behaviour. She shows Ani self-medicating with booze and sex, anything to anaesthetize herself against the tide of ugly memories coming at her.
Para is also skilled at revealing the difficulties of reintegrating into the blandness and superficiality of North American culture after being traumatized by war. The novel flips backward and forward between bombed-out villages in the Middle East and well-heeled Vancouver. The juxtaposition highlights the extreme disparity between Ani’s two experiences of life, and goes a long way toward illuminating another of the reasons for Ani’s slow-burning psychological meltdown. The author populates the Canadian sections of her novel with a buffet of characters vapid and wealthy enough to star on The Real Housewives of Vancouver. The psychiatrist who prescribes Ani antidepressants for her PTSD wears gleaming high heels. Ani’s “unlikeliest friend,” Claire, hosts sushi-and-martini parties in her immaculate house filled with priceless art. Ani feels lost and lonely in this so-called normal non-war world that does not feel to her like home anymore.
There is, though, at the very heart of the novel, a sense that Ani is actively seeking ways to traumatize herself via war. She seems to have a dark, desperate, sick, perverse desire to get closer and closer to violence. Over the course of the novel, we learn that Ani orchestrated the events that lead up to the horrific final incident. She cajoles a former lover (an adrenalin-addicted journalist from Denmark named Alex) into accompanying her closer to the fighting. She ignores warning sign after warning sign that she should not pursue this lead, that it is too dangerous, too uncertain. Ani’s finely tuned instincts tell her to turn back. And when the plan falters, Ani’s response is to come up with an even more dangerous gambit to get her and her colleagues closer to the fighting.
We can understand why Viva, her Iraqi translator, wants to go toward the violence. Viva refuses to stay quietly at home with her mother and young child because she is seeking answers about (and possibly also vengeance for) the disappearance and likely murder of her husband. It is Viva who wants to get to Fallujah, where the fighting is at its most intense. But why is Ani so hell-bent on walking into an active warzone? Why won’t Ani stay quietly at home, or if not quietly at home, then at the very least why won’t she take any precautions? She does, at times, talk about a desire to “get the story.” She tells us that “the truth makes things luminous. This I know from my work. The glow is where I point my camera.” Ani possesses a journalist’s commitment to get the truth out there, yes, but why run headlong into the worst warzone when her gut is screaming at her that this is stupid?
Chris Hedges, a well-known American war journalist, argues in his acclaimed book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, that reporters, as well as soldiers and civilians living in war zones, can become obsessed with conflict and nostalgic for it when it is over. He maintains that we want meaning in our lives more than we are frightened of death. And this is perhaps the best way to understand Ani. She is addicted to war, to the adrenalin of being close to death. Given that Para portrays Vancouver as banal, superficial, insipid and boringly comfortable, a place where all real meaning has been emptied out of the culture or simulated through consumerism, it is not surprising that her main character would be in pursuit of a reason for living. But, ultimately, Ani is an Icarus-like character: she flies too close to the sun. The meaning she seeks so desperately through war nearly kills her.
Terrifyingly, Lucky suggests that we are doomed to comfortable and meaningless lives of sloshing martinis onto our expensive carpets, or violent but meaningful lives of being traumatized by the horrors of war—and that those are our only two options.
While the themes Para explores are fascinating, there is an incomplete or “in progress” quality to this novel. Some of the novel’s images, language and circumstances ring false or come off as generic, and it is distracting to find oneself questioning the rigour of the author’s research while reading the book. But despite doubts about the authenticity of particulars, all of the essential elements of the story are in place. Para has created a complex and compelling character in Ani Lund and the novel is gripping from beginning to end.