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Book review: A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout

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Written by Amanda Lindhout and contributing New York Times magazine writer Sara Corbett, the non-fiction book A House in the Sky details Lindhout’s harrowing kidnap by Somali extremists in 2009. The premise speaks for itself, but to condemn the novel as a hostage story would cheapen the experience and rob the reader of the depth Lindhout conveys with her vivid recollections and strong narrative voice. This isn’t just a story about torture, sexism and isolation. It doesn’t cheat itself by slandering Islam or religious extremism. It doesn’t spare readers by sacrificing detail. The result is a book that is not only powerful and deeply profound, but a humbling, empowering experience that will resonate with readers long after the book reaches its conclusion.

Lindhout had a shaky start in life. Growing up in abject poverty in rural Alberta, her escape from a destitute and violent childhood came from a collection of National Geographic magazines piled by her bed. When the adults in her life failed to provide the comfort of a stable household, she sought escape by envisioning herself at the farthest reaches of the world. At 19, she moved to Calgary and started life anew. As a high-end cocktail waitress, she had soon saved enough to start a worldwide trek. Her sweep across Central and South America soon turned into a journey spanning 47 countries. Standing on top of a mountain in a country she had once only dreamed of visiting, Lindhout vowed to “always push forward, no matter what.” The allure of journalism soon drove her from the bizarre and beautiful to the outright dangerous.

The book’s prose is eloquent, immersive and effortless. The first half of A House in the Sky reads like an experience the reader has been invited to, hitting the tone of a Bellini on a hot summer day. But it’s not without a subtle sense of foreboding. When Lindhout is kidnapped alongside photographer and ex-lover Nigel Brennan, the sudden tone switch doesn’t jar readers so much as politely tap them on the shoulder and remind them why they’re here.

Here, the story finds its strength. As Lindhout is separated and held for ransom, fearing beatings and worse, she has only her resilience to rely on. In the face of mounting futility and after suffering terrible abuse, Lindhout finds incredible strength. She and Brennan discover ways to sneak messages back and forth, encouraging one another. She builds, as the title indicates, a house in the sky, where she transcends pain and drowns her captors’ voices. She promises, in spite of her own feverish, starved body, to do good for the people of Somalia. Most remarkably, she seeks moments of compassion and humanity in her captors, finding ways to empathize with the men who abused her.

The details are not gratuitous, but nonetheless felt. The story transitions from an easy, pleasant read to a gripping, repulsive, but beautiful story of the astounding generosity and resilience of the human spirit.

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