Winning novel’s captures war’s high cost

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January 9, 2014

Lucky: A novel
By Kathryn Para
Published by Mother Tongue Publishing

213 pages, $21.95

Reviewed by Jenny Boychuk

Kathryn Para’s debut novel and winner of The Great BC Novel Contest, Lucky: a novel, explores how we distance ourselves physically and mentally as a way to try to adapt to unthinkable tragedy and suffering.

Anika Lund is a photojournalist working on assignment in the war-torn Middle East when she meets Viva from Syria, a woman in search of her husband’s kidnapper, whom she believes to be in Fallujah, Iraq. Ani’s job is to take photos—of dying children, of broken buildings and dust—that will explain the state of the Middle East to westerners in a way words cannot.

Given the machine gun and the destruction of Murad’s house, Murad, perhaps, is the man she seeks, the one with ties to Zayid’s terrorist franchise that ripples through the Middle East. But on the ground, cradling his head, he looks less like a terrorist than an ordinary man. She takes another photograph of him, and the acid in her stomach lifts, swirls and threatens. Trembling comes next, followed by cold sweat. She lowers the camera and stows it in her bag. Maybe this trip will have been worth the effort. Maybe this time she has taken the photograph that will stop the war.

Ani joins Viva in hopes of finding the photographs that will change everything. Eventually, they are joined by a cocky journalist named Alex, with whom Ani has fallen in love. Together, and well-aware of the dangers that await, they devise an intricate plan to reach their destination. But when Viva’s search for her husband’s kidnapper grows fiercer, something terrible happens in Fallujah.

The novel alternates between the past in the Middle East, and the present in Vancouver, B.C.  Each thread is written in the present tense, which allows the reader to witness the urgency of Ani’s time abroad as she relives it. Para has done something structurally fascinating: like a camera lens, the story fluctuates between zooming the reader uncomfortably far into Ani’s mind post-trauma in Vancouver, and zooming back out to create distance as Ani, Viva and Alex fight for their lives in Fallujah. The pieces of the story that take place in Vancouver are written in first-person point-of-view, from Ani’s perspective, while the parts set in the Middle East are written in a limited third-person point of view, also from Ani’s perspective.

Back in Vancouver, Ani struggles to live with what has happened. Her therapist prescribes a concoction of different anti-depressants and tranquilizers, which Ani mixes with alcohol in an  attempt to escape reality. Then, at a party, Ani’s publisher introduces her to another journalist, Levi, who she thinks might be able to help Ani with her book, to persuade her to open the box of photos she can’t bring herself to look at. Levi is mystified by Ani’s brokenness and, though it isn’t long before the two become locked together physically, she won’t let him into her mind to see what she saw.  By the time a reader reaches the end of the novel, it is not difficult to see why.

Levi finds me later under a tree in the park. I explain that the willow roped me, twisted me around and hog-tied me like a calf, hid me under the dead leaves. My sweet Levi. My swagger man in his tight jeans, my cool-word man with his Mac computer, my investigator man with his laid-back methods. He waits for people to open themselves up. He’s a tricky man.

While the ambitious structure is successful, Ani’s internal first-person voice is much more engaging and interesting. The contrast between voices is obvious but not jarring, and mirrors the premise so well that Para can easily get away with it.

Lucky explores notions of reality and memory and how we skew them in order to try to move forward—or even just exist. The novel succeeds portraying both the deterioration of a civilization and the singular self—and shows how we continue to do the enemy’s work long after we’ve escaped them.

Jenny Boychuk is a BFA graduate about to launch post-grad studies in writing.

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