All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Wolf Hour by Sarah Myles

on September 10, 2018

The Wolf Hour 
Sarah Myles
Allen & Unwin
2018, 337p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

A searing contemporary thriller about an Australian family in crisis against the backdrop of war-torn Africa.

Thirty-year-old Tessa Lowell has a PhD in psychology and is working in Uganda to research the effects of PTSD and war on child soldiers. She joins a delegation travelling across the Congolese border, deep into the African bush, for peace talks with Joseph Kony, notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. 

At the camp Tessa meets thirteen-year-old Francis, already an experienced soldier and survivor of shocking violence. The talks stall, and the camp is attacked by other rebels who take Tessa. Isolated in an increasingly volatile situation, she tries to form a bond with Francis.

In Melbourne, Tessa’s parents are notified of the kidnapping, but learn there is little that government agencies can do. Desperate, they contact their son Stephen, an astute if manipulative businessman based in Cape Town. He agrees to search for his sister but has other reasons to contact the rebel forces.

As Tessa’s time runs out, her family begins to fracture. Her parents arrive in Uganda to hear awful news about what she has endured. They also learn the devastating truth about the kind of man their son has become. Only they have the power to stop a terrible injustice. But at what cost to their family?

I knew that I had to read this as soon as soon as I read the description. I absolutely love books set anywhere in Africa and I’m pretty certain I’d never read one set in Uganda before. I was really interested to get a glimpse into that country and this had the promise of potentially being quite a frightening read, given the main character is kidnapped by rebels.

Tessa Lowell is 30, from Melbourne and she’s in Uganda researching the effects of PTSD on child soldiers kidnapped and turned into soldiers. Everyone hears about how rebel groups sweep through villages, taking all the available male children, raping and killing the women and then burning what’s left behind. These children are indoctrinated into killing at heartbreakingly young ages, given machetes and machine guns and are taught to dehumanise others. For Tessa, the interest for her is in how they cope in the aftermath. She’s working in a refuge centre observing children who have escaped this life and how it impacts their emotional wellbeing. She’s confused that some seem to cope better than others and she’s trying to find a reason why.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Tessa’s decision to insert herself into the group going to meet for peace talks with Joseph Kony, because it seemed incredibly foolish. She’s told that her safety cannot be guaranteed, that she’s both white and a woman and this is incredibly dangerous but she’s determined to go anyway. When she strikes up a conversation with a young rebel named Francis, she mentions that she’s a doctor – she has a PhD, she’s not a medical doctor but Francis doesn’t know the difference and Tessa finds herself kidnapped and taken to a rebel camp and ordered to treat a man dying of gunshot wounds.

Back in Melbourne are Tessa’s parents, Neil and Leigh, who are devastated and terrified to learn of their daughter’s kidnapping. So far no demands have been made so there can be no negotiations and they don’t even know where she is. So they call on their son Stephen, living in South Africa and running a business that seems dubious at best, begging him to do what it takes to get Tessa back. This will open up their eyes to what their son is really doing over there.

I felt for Neil and Leigh. I think it’s very hard to be a world away from your children, be they grown and living their own lives, especially when they are living and working in places where there are different sorts of dangers to the ones familiar at home. Australia is a long way from anywhere and early investigation is crucial so they beg Stephen to go to Uganda and try and find Tessa, knowing that it’s going to take them probably two days to get there. I found their struggle to accept what Stephen was doing very realistic and the questioning that Leigh in particular did, was very well done. There was a lot of that internal debate, was this their fault? Had they contributed to this being the path that Stephen had decided to take? Was there something in his character that they’d fostered or nurtured? That sort of parental struggle was also handled in different ways – Neil’s at first reluctance and then complete capitulation into fury versus Leigh’s emotional look for answers. They had a lot to deal with in a very short time with both their children and it places real strain on their marriage.

It’s hard for me to imagine children being swept up in this sort of world. My oldest son is 10 and my younger son will turn 7 next week. They are probably right at the age that kids are taken and it’s heartbreaking. They are exposed to such horrifying violence and will also commit it themselves and I understand Tessa’s desire to study the after effects of such a life. It’s not easy to imagine people who have been soldiers in an army from such a young age just settling back into village life again and that’s made quite clear at the end of the book. I wanted to read a little more about Tessa’s work, see what she was coming up with and what she might be working towards in the future.

This book was not really the type of read that I expected – I thought the kidnapping might actually take up a greater portion of the story but it’s a relatively small part to be honest. There’s a lot of focus on family relationships and the connections that bind people together through blood even though they might not be connecting in other ways. Tessa and Stephen seemed to have a very fractious sibling relationship – periods of camaraderie but also antagonism. Most of that appeared to be Stephen, who wasn’t a particularly enjoyable character to read. He seemed to have quite a large sense of entitlement and was willing to exploit what he could in order to get himself ahead in terms of money and wealth. Tessa is almost the opposite, wanting to help these communities heal from the ravages of war and destruction. I also felt that I was left with more questions than answers at the end, so I’m not sure if that was intentional (because life is messy and full of answered questions) or perhaps this will be addressed in a further book.

I found that this was a really fast, engrossing read – it took me no time at all to tear through it and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a thoughtful exploration of family strain during a difficult time, of secrets coming to light and a place far removed from what I’m used to. I enjoyed the insight.


Book #155 of 2018

One response to “Review: The Wolf Hour by Sarah Myles

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