Monday, March 03, 2008
Review: "The Distance Between Us"
Masha Hamilton knows firsthand the psyche of a foreign correspondent and she captures the dedication and the self-imposed isolation that exists in those who tune out their own needs and voices to tell the stories of others abroad.
In her book, "The Distance Between Us," Hamilton's main character Caddie Blair is hard and cold, yet also funny and warm. She's a guy's girl who is in the Middle East for the story—THE story of who gets the right to "piss on the ancient ground," which has long been the subject of battles large and small. There are two types of people, she says: "There are whose who leave, and those who stay."
While on a risky trip to Lebanon to interview a reclusive politician, Caddie misses the warning signs of an attack and her photographer boyfriend, who kept telling her he wanted to leave but whom she convinced to come with her on one more assignment, is fatally shot in an ambush.
Like the Palestinians and the West Bank settlers that she covers, she is filled with thoughts of revenge. She is quickly losing herself in a quest to block out all else. That is, until a strange Russian professor shows up along with a journal of photographs that her late boyfriend's parents sent from Britain.
One is feeding her need to lose herself physically and emotionally, the other is forcing her to look at what she's become. Caddie's emotions or even lack of them hurts because you know she's going to implode if she doesn't face them.
Most journalists will recognize the desire to lose yourself in your reporting. Sometimes it's out of sheer enthusiasm for a subject, other times it's an escape—from reality, from boredom. But what Hamilton shows in her journalist is that while she was busy escaping her feelings and boredom thinking she was covering the story of the death and violence of the Middle East, it becomes increasingly apparent to the reader and to Caddie that she's NOT reporting the story.
She didn't put a human face on the death and violence that marks the territory. It remained faceless, nameless, a sheer numbers game. Through some painful and traumatic moments, she learns how much she missed the things around her. And it's through the photos in her boyfriend's journal that she sees herself—and him—for the first time. He had wanted out and she blew him off.
"War strips us naked. I am horrified by what I find in me," he writes at the end of his journal. The effect on Caddie is immediate, though other events have also been building toward her recognizing the "selective deafness" she has exhibited in her work and in her life.
She knows now that the stories have to be about people, about individuals, and that's the only way to lessen "the distance between us."
Word of the day
haunting: to visit often; to have a disquieting or harmful effect on