Book Review: A House in the Sky

Print Amanda Lindhout’s striking tale called “A House in the Sky” is a very readable and at many times, intense read of the events leading up to her capture and the 15 month captivity in Somalia.  Along with her former boyfriend and photojournalist Nigel Brennan, they endured over 400 days in captivity. A House in the Sky is Amanda’s telling of her harrowing experience.

Amanda and Sara Corbett have done a remarkable job of telling this story, it must have been quite an experience to have to relive the events for this remarkable story. It is written without anything extra added on and that is what makes it such a readable and fast-paced read. It builds in intensity and her story unveils itself perfectly and in such a way that keeps you glued to the pages.

Amanda begins her story with a peek into her childhood – divorced parents at a young age, her father moving to live with his gay partner and a mother with a taste for the bad and abusive men. With no clear direction, set goals or path, Amanda moves from Red Deer to Calgary with her boyfriend and takes on jobs in exclusive night clubs and restaurants. On a fluke her and her boyfriend decide to take a trip to New Zealand and here, the travel bug hits. Only going back to Calgary to waitress enough to raise funds for their next backpacking adventures, Amanda adds more and more countries to her list and to satisfy her wanderlust desires. There is no way she’s going to accept a 9-to-5 office job now!

Following the break up with her boyfriend, she goes on to more travel (backpacking) adventures, only this time with a female friend but later begins to strike out on her own. Her first solo adventure is in to Pakistan. Here she realizes that all the news stories back home about the dangers of Pakistan are not always necessarily true. She found great beauty and enjoyment in Pakistan. She even ventured in to Afghanistan, on her own, continuing, it would seem to maintain this bit of naivete about the dangers, especially for women travelling alone, and certainly of the dangers of travelling alone in the Middle East.

Her next trip brings her in to Africa, a place she had always longed to go, and where she met Nigel Brennan, an aspiring photographer. It is Nigel that gave her the idea of how she could continue her travels – through freelance photo entries. Here, in providing Amanda the title of “journalist” as she’s noted in the news reports about her capture, is, in a way a “bit” of a stretch? She had no formal training or education in journalism, it was simply a way she found could prolong and fund her travel adventures.

Her most ambitious foray in to this field was to accept an assignment with an independent news organization to cover conflict in the Middle East – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. She asks if Nigel would like to come along, but he declines. It becomes painfully obvious to Amanda that the journalists and news organizations firmly embedded in the Middle East leave very little room for her to “make it” in the same way that Dan Rather made his name. (She often mentions Dan Rather’s rise to fame by standing in the path of a hurricane often as a benchmark for making her break.)

Therefore, she hatches the idea and plan to go in to Somalia and cover the strife happening there. She is frequently (consistently) told that going in to Somalia is flat-out stupidity. It’s a way to get killed. They behead the journalists there. She is repeatedly told to stay out. Yet Amanda convinces Nigel to come along with her. In a way, it read as though she may have ridiculed or needled him for not coming to Baghdad with her on assignment and to striking out to make names for themselves as photo/journalists. Reluctantly, Nigel agrees to come along.

“The media in Somalia was mostly underground and unofficial. Somali journalists attempting to do honest work were routinely threatened, detained, and sometimes assassinated.” (pg 298)

Four days after they’ve arrived in Somalia, they are captured. A ransom neither of their families could dream of raising is made. For the first many months (!!) it seemed to be a time of frustration and the realization that their captors were really only boys playing at a role that is the only one known to them. There wasn’t a great deal of open hostility, perhaps more towards Amanda as she was the only woman and made what could have been a gross misstep in telling her mother to not come up with the ransom money.

After more time and time not hearing or seeing from the “leaders” and news from their families, Nigel and Amanda grow more concerned over their impending fate and hatch a plan to escape. This escape attempt goes horribly, horribly awry and from this point on, their captivity takes a horrifying turn. As we are hearing of Amanda’s side we hear of how much more brutal it is for her, again being the only woman present and the ire of these men/boys. Here you start to hear of the frustration between Nigel and Amanda and how easily they were able to turn on one another. Following horrifying beatings as punishment for their escape attempt, Nigel tells Amanda that this is something she just needs to take at this point. This is something that never ever left her.

Here, the beatings, torture, rape and excessive abuse are thrown more at Amanda. Here, is where the story intensifies and you cannot stop reading, you cannot take your eyes off the pages. Here is where Amanda starts building “a house in the sky” to remove herself from her present place and transport herself home, to be with her mother, to feel the cold and snow of an Alberta winter once again.

“After being tied up for days – The pain was gone. I felt a bizarre,, disembodied relief. Nothing at all hurt. I’d become unhitched, like a blown bit of dandelion drifting on a pillar of air. I was an observer, purely an observer, a self without a body. Maybe I’d died. I wasn’t sure. I was high up in one corner, looking down at what was below. From above, I could see two men and a woman on the ground. The woman was tied up like an animal, and the men were hurting her, landing blows on her body. I knew all of them, but I also didn’t….I’d slipped across some threshold I would never understand. The feeling was both deeply peaceful and deeply sad. What I saw was three people suffering, the tortured and the torturers alike.”

So many times she wished herself dead, and thought of ways in which she could achieve that goal. But something, something kept her fighting and strong.

“Death began to look welcoming. Whatever death was, it had to be better….Death would require no effort, just the letting go.”

Nigel often comes across as cowardly or weak many times throughout this story. It cannot be surprising however that both would start to lay blame upon one another while in captivity. At one point, following their escape attempt and when the abuse and torture took on increased and cruel times for Amanda, she found, at one point Nigel sitting in a room filled with sunlight, upon a bed, reading, while she was kept in a darkened room and not allowed to ever move off of her side. But more than anything they persevered, told each other they loved each other and without each other would never have survived. Today, their bond is no longer one of closeness. I can only imagine how painful the memories would be, too much to continue any relationship that could be cobbled together following this experience. Nigel has written his own account of these events, entitled “The Price of Life”, which I’m very interested in reading.

Although there were moments while reading where you would think Amanda terrifyingly naïve (some have lashed out at her stupidity I’ve seen) for doing what she did, you still cannot deny the harrowing experience she triumphed over and A House in the Sky still remains an incredible, intensely emotional and amazing story of survival and hope. Regardless of any misgivings, or naivete,  no one could possibly survive to tell this tale the way Amanda did. To relive it all in such exceptional detail must have taken an incredible and enormous amount of strength.

“I also made what was the very beginning of a larger vow. “I wonder when I am free again, how I can help oppressed people. I owe it to everyone to make my life into something.”

She has kept this vow to help others and has since created the non-profit organization “Global Enrichment Foundation” that supports aid and education in Somalia and Kenya.

A very great thank you to Edelweiss, Scribner and also the Windsor Public Library for the pleasure of reading A House in the Sky. It has been well over a week since finishing and still I am unable to stop thinking about Amanda and her experience. It is an often intense read but written in an amazing manner that keeps you glued to your seat, eyes never leaving the page. Her strength and spirit is truly inspirational.

The pictures below are of Amanda and Nigel after they were released from captivity and of Amanda as before and after her captivity.

SOMALIA JOURNALISTS FREED   amandalindhout

The Daily Beast ran an interview with Amanda Lindhout and used this image (below) at the top of the article. To me, this was an image I was searching for when writing this post, because if you look closely you see these “men” behind the masks are actually only boys. It is something that Amanda repeatedly stated and noted in her memoir and for me, this picture captures that perfectly. The full interview can be read here.

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