NOTHING cures what ails you like a trip to Africa -- or at least that seems to be the lesson behind Ontario writer Heather A. Clark's debut novel. This Eat, Pray, Love-style story follows a 30-something woman from the suburbs of Toronto to an orphanage in Kenya, where she seeks peace and an escape from her past.
The novel opens just after Nicky and her husband Eric have learned their latest round of fertility treatments has failed, yet again. The first few chapters of the book outline the compelling, difficult and lengthy process on their road to becoming parents.
Eventually, Nicky does become pregnant, and the couple couldn't be happier. Tragically, the baby is born early and only survives for a day. Unable to communicate their grief to one another, Nicky and Eric's marriage falls apart.
Nicky then decides to take a volunteer teaching position for three months in Ngong, Kenya, and it's there she meets her host family, including the wise old Mama Bu with whom she shares countless cups of chai as they discuss the ups and downs of life.
The opening quarter of the novel holds some truly heartfelt moments that might have you reaching for the tissue. Unfortunately, Clark fails to capture any of that same magic during the remaining pages of her tale.
Clark's description of Africa and Nicky's time there reads like someone who has never actually been there, but whose scope of reference was gleaned entirely from watching Hollywood movies and World Vision commercials. The scenery and description are too vague and generic, leaving the reader without any real sense of place. As a result, we never feel immersed in the story.
The prose is completely bogged down in stilted dialogue that lacks flow and authenticity, particularly during exchanges that seem overly polite and unnatural.
Many exchanges start with something like "Thank you, Nicky" or "I agree, but ..." And Nicky's reaction to what she sees in Africa is often laughable -- it seems impossible that a supposedly intelligent school teacher would be so surprised they have cellphones and email in Kenya.
The novel also suffers from clichéd descriptions of those living in Third World countries and is filled with empty sentiments like, "The children have next to nothing, yet they were filled with a richness that money couldn't buy."
Nicky herself becomes an instant Mother Teresa when she discovers the children at the orphanage are being beaten and abused by the cruel director. It seems everyone takes to her a little too easily as she becomes a benign force that can do no wrong. Once again, the result is a story that feels inauthentic and shallow.
Ultimately, the novel lacks any sense of urgency and intensity, as every conflict is resolved too easily and without any depth.
Winnipeg writer Nisha Tuli and her husband recently had their first child.