A must-read for journalists, travellers and book lovers
“Hello, hello,” she said. “Amanda, you’re free.”
That line is enough to make your eyes well up and your skin shiver when you turn the page near the final chapter of the emotionally charged and intimately articulate memoir, A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett.
Don’t worry—I didn’t spoil the ending. Chances are you’ve read Lindhout’s name in the headlines since news of her abduction broke in 2008. The Alberta native spent 460 days as a hostage in Somalia with friend and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan from August 2008 to January 2009.
Her memoir, co-written by Sara Corbett of the New York Times Magazine, chronicles her captivity and aptly illustrates the events leading up to her decision to travel to Somalia, including past relationships, adventures and employment both at home and abroad.
At first, I wondered why Lindhout started so far back. The first half of the book describes her adolescence, which is both mundane and mystifying at the same time. This is, perhaps, both a weakness and strength of Lindhout’s writing, as I desperately wanted to find out what would happen next but I was also left wanting more for much of the book. I had this feeling at the end as well, wanting to know more about life after the hostage taking.
Eventually it does become clear why she talks so much about her childhood, recounting dumpster diving with her brother and flipping through pages of National Geographic. When Lindhout describes her most challenging times as a hostage, earlier memories resurface and the context makes the story all the more powerful.
Herein lie the book’s greatest strengths: description and emotion. Lindhout and Corbett craft memories and traumatizing moments vividly and seamlessly.
In moments of excruciating pain and anguish, for example when Lindhout and Brennan attempt to escape and fail, the reader is completely immersed in details of fear, chaos, trauma and even, sometimes, empathy. At times, the emotions are so clear, the action so well paced, it feels like watching a film. To call it “compelling”—as Laura Eggertson did in the Star--is even a bit of an understatement.
It is important to point out that the attention to detail and graphic nature of Lindhout’s writing can be deeply upsetting and discomforting; this book is not for the faint of heart.
Lindhout holds nothing back when talking about wanting to end her life, being raped by her captors, or being tortured and tied up in unimaginable pain. For this reason, I cannot say this book is “easy to read” but I can say you will want to keep reading until the end.
This level of literary achievement might surprise some readers. As Saleem Khan critiques in the National Post: “…A House in the Sky is surprisingly balanced. Sara Corbett’s expertise is evident, deftly telling the tale as news reports could not.”
Although it is true, Corbett is a talented writer, this kind of commentary could also stem from Lindhout’s perceived lack of journalistic experience.
Lindhout describes graduating high school, moving to Calgary and working as a waitress to save money for adventures all over the world, including Thailand, Pakistan and Afghanistan. She landed a job with Press TV and wrote a column for her hometown paper, the Red Deer Advocate.
Although she was relatively new to the field, her passion for storytelling and adventure is clear—perhaps to a fault. Lindhout’s naivety is a theme throughout the book and a topic that put her in the middle of a great deal of media criticism upon her return from Somalia.
Whether Lindhout is a journalist has been hotly debated, with critics like Andrew Cohen of the Ottawa Citizen calling her a “chirpy naïf” and Robert Draper describing her as “recklessly perky” in Elle Magazine. Her experience appears to be the focus of the discussion, but there is a topic that is much more pervasive in the book and should get more attention: gender.
Lindhout often touches on gender in the book, contrasting her experiences with Brennan’s. From smaller examples like being prevented from staying in hotels as a single woman or having to cover herself in a modest manner to more poignant contrasts like having to survive at times in total isolation and darkness. The issue of sexual abuse, of course, goes without saying.
Lindhout writes, “I was aware of being female every second of every hour.” And I felt that when reading her book—especially as a young, female journalist. It’s easy to identify with Lindhout.
This issue not only shapes the book but how others perceive and critique Lindhout today. Would a man in the same situation be described as “chirpy” or “perky”? We know the answer, as Brennan was also there. The answer is no.
Brennan also wrote a book. Did you know that?