Honor among Thieves is the latest novel from J., experienced aid worker and pseudonymous blogger and indie author. It follows American aid worker Mary-Anne on her personal and professional journeys in the aid world. In this book, part two in The Humanitarian Fiction Trilogy (following the prequel, Disastrous Passion, and part one, Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit), Mary-Anne is sent to Cambodia to conceive and monitor a development project in order to land a significant sponsorship deal for the fictional NGO World Aid Corps (WAC).
Cambodia is a curious location for this instalment. Unlike Mary-Anne’s previous posts, in post-earthquake Haiti and a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Cambodia is a well-established nucleus for aid and development workers and is not a country in the throes of a humanitarian crisis, but rather is undergoing a period of economic, social and political transformation. In the same way, Mary-Anne’s professional role is shifting from crisis response to sustained development.
Here, more than ever, she is challenged by the puzzling realities of delivering aid within a capitalist framework.
J. undoubtedly uses fiction as an avenue to personify his explorations of the aid world. Each character embodies a different player in the sector, as if each one is a vehicle to steer the reader down one road of inquiry or another. Despite this, the characters do not feel two-dimensional; in fact, the most charming elements of the novel lie in the way each character sparks a little self-critique in the reader, their strengths and flaws mutually shaming and inspiring the same qualities in oneself. The author’s voice is distinguishable throughout the book and does not disappear behind the characters, whose journey through Cambodia reflects J.’s journey through his own cynicisms and sympathies toward aid work.
Though more accessible than his previous novels, Honor among Thieves still requires some knowledge of the aid world, as the acronyms and jargon can seem a little impenetrable at times. But the opportunity to explicate the varied elements of what the general public may simply label “aid” is not totally lost, and the book offers a digestible tale to those outside the sector. The honesty in which each character tackles their hypocrisies pulls the novel away from pretention and toward a very raw quest to understand humanitarian work.
CAMFrom the viewpoint of someone immersed in the sector, the novel is at times disenchanting, as all-too-familiar realities are reduced to a tangible turn of phrase. But just as you begin to spiral into despair, turning each page expecting the delivery of harsh truths on a silver platter, J. pulls back. Whilst unmistakably a sceptic, he infuses his disenchantment with a fascination and passion that shine through Mary-Anne, as her journey never seems guaranteed to end. You feel that she evolves, as we evolve, as J. evolves.
The title of the novel, Honor among Thieves, is the axis of its message. Each character is subject to their own battle, balancing themselves in a space between helping and hurting. How is “doing good” tempered by the practicalities of achieving tangible outcomes, and at what cost? This notion of cost is evident in the balance Mary-Anne must find between her own belief in a project and one the donor is most likely to fund. It’s seen in the compromises business owner Frank is willing to make to keep his bar economically viable, in the rage fieldworker Patty feels as she struggles to bend to a system built on compromise and in the lovers who turn a blind eye to each other’s actions.
Honor among Thieves is a story that explores our relationship with humanity and capital and asks if helping can exist in a world bent on extraction. How is it that we balance the value of people and of profit? Mary-Anne discovers not only the relationship between herself and aid work, but also the relationship between that work and her employer.
The novel is a light yet thought-provoking read. J. offers the reader a respite from dense critiques of aid and development practice, and puts the humanity back into accounts of humanitarian work.
Honor Among Thieves launched on 16 March, 2015, and is available for purchase on Amazon and CreateSpace. You can also read our review of part one in the trilogy, Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit.
Featured image shows life on the Tonlé Sap in Cambodia. Photo from Flickr.
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