A review of J.’s new novel Honor Among Thieves
As a former aid worker I carry the signs of the field: I can bear long waits at airports, sit on planes for a good however many hours, or find ways not to lose it while waiting at a checkpoint. My “reverse culture shock” is epitomised by the London commute, which only a good read can make less painful. Hence I’m thankful to J. for having injected those tube journeys with the witty, well written and entertaining novel that I’m about to review for my fellow do-gooders.
House of Cards in Aidland?
Honor Among Thieves is the second chapter of J.’s humanitarian trilogy (here’s the first). With a good pace and a number of intertwining stories that will feel very familiar for anyone who’s been around aid, the book sets its sights on the frequently fraught relationship between aid workers and aid NGOs.
We follow Mary-Anne’s professional evolution at the fictional US-based INGO World Aid Corps (WAC) as she takes up the opportunity to swap the challenges of the field for what looks like the security of the headquarters. A newbie in the aid business, Mary-Anne embarks on an eye-opening journey to Cambodia where she finds herself caught between the HQ agenda and the needs of the field. In Phnom Penh we meet familiar aid characters such as Patty, the WAC field rep, a veteran aid worker jaded by too much compromising with the aid business, with next to no personal life, committed to her morning yoga practice to keep some resemblance of sanity in her system. Patty is the expats who has been away from home and feels at home everywhere and nowhere:
“I’m here because I don’t really fit in North America anymore. I’ve tried to make it work, but I can’t. It’s not that I love Cambodia. […] Like I told you before, I don’t. I like it, but don’t love it. And for some weird reason it’s just easier to not fit in here than it is to not fit in in a Maryland or Virginia suburb.”
We encounter Trevor, the young naive idealist who wants to make a difference while trying to avoid the pitfalls of the aid industry, only to discover that those pitfalls may be unavoidable. We come to know Frank, the expat who prefers “trade to aid” and now runs a bar in Phnom Penh. As we follow the unfolding story of a Cambodian family, we meet Boupha, the local WAC project manager who’s seen way too many foreigners wanting to do good in her country to trust that things will be different this time. We encounter the HQ main players: Jillian, Mary-Anne’s boss, Gary the donor who decides to fund a water project over a golf game, and Scott, the ex-corporate guy brought into the charity sector to raise serious funds. Each in their own way bulldozing through aid work as if in a corporate rat-race.
The humanitarian game as described in the novel at times reminds me of the cynicism of House of Cards (not quite, maybe), yet J. manages to let us see the humanity of its characters who seem desperate “to help the poor”, no matter how much they need to set aside integrity and dearly held principles. What emerges is a sharp and entertaining portrait of the aid industry that leaves room for constructive reflection.
“A toxic psychological stew”
I guess I read Honor Among Thieves with my psychologist hat on, and with my eyes on the what J. calls “a toxic psychological stew” in which aid workers often find themselves. I appreciated how the author skillfully brings to life the emotional highs and lows, the burned-out lifestyle with its mix of shattered dreams, anger, guilt, frustration, overwork, addiction, idealism, crashed illusions, and harsh politics that most aid workers experience.
Simple sentences have a psychological depth, like when Patty, after a few too many drinks, tells Mary-Anne: “Watch out you don’t end up like me, an aid maid.” I sympathise with Patty, a good person broken by her own grit, and I want to know what will be of Mary-Anne, dying to help others, while sleepless and exhausted, is incapable to voice her own needs:
“Mary-Anne sat bolt upright in bed, once again her body drenched in sweat, pulse racing. She shook her head, trying to erase the images that flooded her brain. She hadn’t slept, really, in weeks. Every time she closed her eyes, faces faded into view in the darkness. She’d tried taking something—pills—for sleeping, but they hadn’t helped. […] A problem. Is that what they called it? Needing help and acknowledging that one needed help were two vastly different things. Taking steps to get help, another thing completely.”
One of the toughest calls for those who are meant to help others is the realisation that if we don’t put our own mask on first we are bound to suffocate:
“First she had to take care of herself. Talking to a counselor, going to therapy, felt like a bald admission that something was wrong or that she was psycho or a whack job. Or most damning of all, in an industry obsessed with helping the vulnerable, simply weak. But in the silence of her own head, Mary-Anne innately understood that to continue trying to make it on her own simply would not work.”
Aid as a self-reflective practice
Honour Among Thieves is much more than a good novel that will help you to bear dreadful commutes, or airport purgatories. It prompts us to reflect on our own experience of aid work and to me it highlights the desperate willingness of some professionals to do good and be good at the expenses of their own sanity, happiness, and personal fulfilment. It sheds light on the paradoxical attempts by others to “make a difference” while losing sight of what it means to be a good, decent, kind human being. Can the two be disjoined? I often wonder.
What I mostly enjoyed about the novel is the empathic compassion that the author has for his characters who at times appear as almost cogs in a machine that chews them up and spits them out, turning them into “battered, damaged souls”.
I would recommend Honor Among Thieves to anyone who wants to get a sense of what it means to live and work in Aidland. J. beautifully represents the privileges and pitfalls of a lifestyle that places people in a semi-permanent liminal place, with its paradoxes, uncertainties, contradictions, up and downs. University students and Trevor-type do-gooders can take a glimpse into the complexities of “helping”. J’s novel is an educational and entertaining journey into a world with its honor codes and unwritten rules.
J., Honor Among Thieves (Kindle Edition), Evil Genius Publishing, ISBN/EAN13: 0989365972/9780989365970, 274 pages, USD 4.31.
Full disclosure: For this review I received a beta-version of the ebook from the author.