‘While the Sun is Above Us’ by Melanie Schnell

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Sarah Petz

First-time novelist Melanie Schnell spent a year volunteering in the war-ravaged Southern Sudan, where she witnessed the devastating effects of the civil war on the villages where she worked, and interviewed dozens of people that had lived through it. The result is While the Sun is Above Us, a complex, haunting look at war and slavery in Sudan through the eyes of two women from vastly different backgrounds.

The narrative is split between the perspectives of Adut, a Sudanese mother brutally captured and held as a slave for eight years, and Sandra, a young naïve Canadian fleeing her failed relationship by becoming an aid worker in South Sudan. After Sandra becomes embroiled in a local conflict, their lives become intertwined.

The concept is ambitious for a first time novelist, but Schnell manages it with grace and clarity. What is particularly impressive is how she deals with the description of violence, particularly sexual violence against Adut at the hands of her captors. Rather than being sensational and gratuitous, these scenes are dealt with with sensitivity and subtlety, making them all the more powerful.

At times the novel can be challenging, with a non-linear plot structure that jumps to different times and settings on top of the already complex intertwining narratives of Sandra and Adut. Though the perspectives of these two protagonists are easily defined, as Schnell has given each a distinct voice, I did find myself having to go back and figure out where they were in time and space. Schnell also incorporates many Sudanese terms that may not be in the average reader’s vocabulary (but nothing that a quick Google search can’t clear up).

Schnell focuses much of the novel on the day-to-day realities that Adut and Sandra face, while slowly revealing how the lives of these two women have become so intricately intertwined. I found this at times made the novel move at a snail’s pace, which I’ll admit made it difficult to retain my interest at the half way point. This is mostly due to the fact that a good portion of the novel concentrates on Sandra and Adut’s experiences in captivity, as Schnell tells us of their lives through her characters’ memories. Yet while Adut’s perspective on her captors serves to highlight the politics of the Sudanese civil war, I found Sandra’s scenes in captivity repetitive and sometimes frustrating to read as she mostly spends them bemoaning how unfortunate her situation is. The resolution to their respective captures then seems to come abruptly, as if the author felt the need to quickly wrap up this plot line before the end of the novel.

Despite the slow plot, Schnell has built two incredibly rich characters in Adut and Sandra that vibrantly illustrate the experiences of those whose lives have been torn apart by war and the challenges of those who try to aid them. Sandra can simultaneously appear completely devoted to her aid work and yet just another shallow Westerner who is ignorant of the culture and painful past of the people she is trying to help. At one point her superior chides her for wearing skimpy shorts around the conservative Sudanese locals, and scenes where she asks people in her village to help her find a young African woman she saw in a magazine made me cringe with embarrassment for her.

By contrast, Adut’s life offers a window into the world of the Sudanese before and after the bloody civil war. Schnell describes both the realities of Adut’s life as a mother and wife in rural Sudan fleeing the brutal government militia, the murahaleen, and the violence of her life as a slave with precise detail. Through all these experiences, Adut remains strong and hopeful that she will one day return to her family.

The contrast between the naiveté of Sandra and the world weariness of Adut is demonstrated particularly well in the early pages of the novel, such as in this passage written from the perspective of Adut:

Forgive me, but life was not difficult for you. And there are things that I have wondered since that moment when we met, when you touched me on the wrist as you helped me to my feet, your white fingers brushing my scar, and I was shocked by the colour of your hair, like the sun: did you think you could escape the debt of grief that this land carries? Did you think you could come here and then leave, untouched? Did you believe the colour of your skin would keep you safe?

While the Sun is Above Us may move too slowly at times, the richness of its characters and Schnell’s portrait of life in Sudan are equally rewarding. By the end of the novel, the painful experiences of Adut and Sandra left me haunted, as Schnell tells her story with such clarity that I could smell the blood on their clothes and feel the hot sun beating down above them.

Freehand | 240 pages |  $21.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1554810611

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Sarah Petz

Sarah Petz is a Winnipeg journalist whose work has appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, Maclean's On Campus, and SANDBOX magazine.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty

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