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A trek through the West African bush

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This debut literary novel takes readers from the familiar spaces of Vancouver to the complicated and haunting territories of Sierra Leone. It is a candid and thoughtful journey through the minefields of post-trauma, memory and recovery.

My Heart Is Not My Own begins with the story of Dr. John Rourke, a psychiatrist who did relief work as an emergency room doctor in war-ridden areas.

The memory of his time in Sierra Leone at the outset of the Civil War encompasses him, and with the birth of his first child looming, he returns to West Africa to face his demons.

Rourke's story is interrupted by the diary entries of Mariama Lahai, a nurse who worked with him at a hospital in Freetown before he was evacuated. The diary finds its way to Rourke's home in Vancouver 10 years after his exit from Sierra Leone.

The entries are difficult and spellbinding, and they grip the imagination of Rourke's wife, Nadia, who encourages him to go back and find Mariama and a fellow doctor, Momodu Camara.

In her diary, Mariama navigates the rebels' world of violence, drugs and child soldiers. A rescued baby strapped to her back, she nurses the rebels and their captives in the hopes of keeping the baby alive: "If the baby go die, then I go die too," she writes.

Mariama's experiences are horrible, and they reveal the grotesque possibilities of human cruelty. Author Michael Wuitchik deals with these scenes with a grace and sensitivity that doesn't capitalize on their shock value.

My Heart is Not My Own does not have the benefit of the experienced hand of say, Will Ferguson's Giller Prize winner, 419, which also explores the issues of West African poverty and the brutality and lasting damage of war.

Wuitchik writes much simpler prose that is void of pretense. Also reflecting his inexperience, Wuitchik's characters are almost irritatingly good, and at times edge on implausible.

Wuitchik takes his opportunities to stand on his soap box and preach about contentious issues, especially the practice of female circumcision, which he discusses with near obsessiveness throughout the novel.

While these moments are, at times, informative, they often feel shoe-horned in and detract from the story.

Wuitchik's own experience as a psychologist and relief worker in Sierra Leone is apparent. The novel is so personal, at times it feels as if we are trespassing on thoughts and feelings we ought not be privy to.

We are taken into the West African bush, a world of secret societies and folklore, one that will not readily be forgotten.

Katelyn Dykstra Dykerman is a PhD student in English at the University of Manitoba. She lives in Steinbach.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2013 A1

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