Friday, 11 May 2012

Are you following a road less travelled?

While the Sun is Above Us, by Melanie Schnell
Have you ever felt propelled to follow a path that most people would avoid? Even though your friends, family, colleagues and even total strangers warn you that it’s about the dumbest idea ever, not to mention silly, weird, worrisome, futile, dangerous or downright crazy, still every cell in your being tells you that this urge must be followed?

In While the Sun is Above Us, Sandra is suddenly filled with an inexplicable urge to find a woman whose picture is published in a magazine article about women facing terrible hardships as the result of the war in Sudan.  Not only is she filled with this urge, her hospital roommate, with whom she has nothing else in common, is also driven to go to the Sudan, just as inexplicably.  While the roommate has a nearly opposite personality to Sandra, and talks about going, Sandra keeps this compelling urge to herself. 

Eventually she has to tell her friends and family that she is going, but knows better than to disclose the real reason: she has to find this woman.  Why?  She doesn’t know.  Sandra seems to just accept that mysterious ways are profoundly real, and don’t need rational explanations.

Sandra has saved her money to finance this trip, and she’s able to sign up with an NGO.  However the operation is so fledgling that the founder is only an earnest university student who managed to finagle a government grant to partially finance the operation, and she herself won’t be going, as she has classes to attend, not to mention Starbucks coffees to slurp.  Even the reader wants to leap into the book and shake some practicality into Sandra’s shoulders at this point.  Her friends and family are bewildered by her obstinacy but resigned after trying to talk her out of it.

This isn’t a book for the lazy reader.  The story is told from the point of view of Sandra from different time frames.  It’s also told from Adut’s point of view, also from various time frames.  Adut is the woman in the picture, and they do share a bond that is mysterious on a spiritual level, but cruelly practical in the material world.  Each chapter is from a different time frame, and may be either Sandra’s or Adut’s narrative.  The novel is challenging because of this, but it pieces together beautifully, the quilt of it illustrating a story both believable and profound. 
Just as Sandra has to choose a less travelled path, so does Adut.  She also must go against her family’s wishes, and do what she deeply knows must be done, however seemingly irrational to others.  Several other characters in Sudan make similar decisions.

As far as literature therapy goes, or bibliotherapy (for you old school types), this is an excellent read for affirming that deeply entrenched gut feeling, the one that keeps driving you on, despite the worries listed by the people around you.

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