The White Mary
Kira Salak
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Buy *The White Mary* by Kira Salak online

The White Mary
Kira Salak
Henry Holt
368 pages
August 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Two fractured lives eventually converge in this tale of redemption and hope, where the worst things in life usually turn out to be the greatest gifts and where destiny is shaped by betrayal and tragedy. The novel opens as war reporter Marika Vecera travels through the remote interior of New Guinea, searching for her idol Robert Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent who vanished a few years ago, leaving only a mysterious suicide note.

Although everyone is positive that Robert drowned, only Marika suspects that he might just possibly be alive somewhere in the remote jungles of New Guinea. Embarking on a mission to find him after beginning his biography, the complicated Marika finds herself confronting her own personal demons as she traipses through the swamps and forests of this distant and inaccessible country, desperately encountering danger after danger.

A disconsolate and wondering spirit, Marika has spent much of her life going to war-torn areas of the world, her world made large by her battles to survive in the chaos of failed states just one more time. But her failed relationship with her psychologist boyfriend, Seb, an ex-coke addict, most haunts her as she retreats to this isolated place, where she exists day-to-day on a minimum of commitment with only her native guide Tobo, a witch doctor who takes this "white Mary" on her inevitable journey through the wilderness.

On this trip looking for the ghost of Lewis, Marika is completely at the mercy of the world, enduring the extreme humidity and heat. When she becomes stranded and lost, the dominoes of her life suddenly begin to fall, and she finally understands the magnitude of what she’s done. Lying in a hut in the middle of a New Guinea jungle alone, at the mercy of Tobo and his tribe, having spent three months searching futilely for a man who’s supposed to be dead, Marika can only watch each moment “disappearing in the futile actions of a second.”

Still, Marika continues on. Tobo tells her that Lewis is rumored to be living in a village just below the Walwasi Mountains, far into the interior, the mountains having “the high and sharp teeth of a demon.“ One can only wonder what this realization will do to Marika next, sweat covering her, mosquitoes biting, her body aching with fatigue along with the agonizing nights of no sleep. It comes as no surprise that the native population are frightened of her, having never seen a white woman with flaming red hair before.

Gradually converging Marika’s two worlds, Kira Salak paints her heroine’s past life in Boston with Seb with her frantic efforts to find Lewis in New Guinea. In the process, the author paints Marika’s dramas in an unfolding canvas, of the time where she faced certain death on a magazine assignment covering the Rwandan genocide and the 2003 war in the Congo, then her recovery in Boston, where she suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome causing her to betray Seb.

The harsh and beautiful landscapes of New Guinea act as a dramatic backdrop to Marika’s search: “the flocks of red and green parrots, and the butterflies of blue and gold dancing over the black waters and crowned pigeons with their regal headdresses of gray plumage.” Ultimately in this place, at this time, everything comes together, and Marika must come to terms with her inner self and the reasons why she just could not commit to Seb.

Meanwhile, the ferocity of nature threatens, and Seb, the consoler, echoes throughout Marika’s mind. She remembers how he once tried to set her free from the hatred and wars that had encapsulated much of her life. As Marika draws closer to Lewis, she cannot help but become a victim. With all of her worldly possessions stripped away, she is finally able to free the lockbox of her mind from unhappiness, addiction and depression.

Of course, Marika is finally fated to find Lewis. In the process, Salak’s narrative is always engrossing, especially when it delves deep into Marika’s war-torn past and the heart-wrenching reasons why Lewis vanished so mysteriously. Reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s legendary Lord Jim, this novel is ultimately a compendium of man (and woman) against nature, which in turn mirrors Marika’s own efforts to find and pursue her definitive path in life.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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