Following on from our recent literature-themed blogs, Aid Leap has been generously sent a copy of blogger J’s new book ‘Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit’ to review.
Given our bemoaning the dearth of creative works about the aid world, we were particularly excited to read a current piece of aid fiction.
‘Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit’ is a rip-roaring tale of love and disillusionment set in the dusty offices of Dolo Ado refugee camp in Ethiopia.
The protagonist, a young, idealistic aid worker called Mary-Anne is forced to confront her choices about work and love, and learns some hard lessons about herself and the reality of aid work. The ruggedly dashing Jon Langstrom struggles with the conflicting demands of family separation and a challenging senior posting.
Other characters flesh out the narrative and add flashes of colour. The brash CEO Mark is an archetypal baddy. Left-at-home mum Angie inspires exasperation, but you can empathise with her situation. Mulu Alem, the Ethiopian coordinator weary of endless NGO bickering, is a welcome addition into an otherwise heavily expat-centric cast.
It is a chomping, entertaining read full of outrageous clichés and a quick moving plot. For those who work in the humanitarian sector, it covers familiar territory and you can find yourself quickly relating to the characters and the situations they find themselves in. This is just the sort of thing you would want to settle down with after a long day in the field, preferably with a cold beer.
The world itself is well drawn and populated with some brilliantly incisive observations. Places such as the expat bar ‘Billy Bob’s’ are immediately recognisable, and descriptions of the heady, alcohol fuelled and often farcical settings are nicely done. Likewise, descriptions of the gritty day-to-day challenges – gruelling office hours, the political wrangles of securing funding and constant in-fighting amongst NGOs are spot on.
This is a book written by an aid worker, for aid workers, and has all the comfort of a shared in-joke – but with the consequent alienation for those uninitiated. The liberal dosing of acronyms and industry jargon can render the book impenetrable for anyone not well versed in aid speak.
J clearly knows the environment inside out. He is a canny writer and a master of the snarky blog. However, his fiction writing does not always have the same ease and can lapse into laboured, uncomfortable phrasing – such as the description of Somali refugees as ‘scared, too-skinny, intense, chocolate-colored.’
The characters fit well with the rambunctious style (think Jilly Cooper meets a UNOCHA coordination meeting) but at times the more crudely drawn, superficial personalities can grate. Mary-Anne is a sympathetic character, but her dazzlingly blond good looks and meteoric rise through the ranks are a bit much to stomach. Her distant boyfriend Jean-Philippe is not properly developed beyond the stereotype of a passionate MSF Frenchman, and serves mostly to offset Mary-Anne’s relationship with Langstrom.
This is coupled with some odd plot vehicles. Operations Director Brandon’s disappearance is never satisfactorily dealt with. The final twist was somewhat unbelievable yet predictable, having been obviously built up since the start – and added nothing to the plot except a sense of anti-climax.
The book’s real strength is its sense of immersion into the aid world. The career challenges that Mary-Anne face are realistic and well observed, and her conversations with Langstrom are a useful resource for any eager young aid worker. Though Langstrom’s career recommendations do sometimes feel like advice for the reader rather than natural prose, it is nonetheless interesting and makes sense within the narrative.
All in all, ‘Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit’ is an enjoyable, rollicking stomp through the hinterlands of a humanitarian field mission. Highly recommended for a long airport layover or evening off – and you can pick it up on Amazon and Kindle. It is great to see pieces of fiction finally emerging – the question is, where are all the others?