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Right of Thirst Paperback – April 21, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Doctor-author Huyler offers in his first novel (after story collection The Laws of Invisible Things) a clear-eyed if occasionally overwrought exploration of grief and redemption in a refugee camp set in an unnamed mountainous Islamic country. After witnessing his wife's slow death, cardiologist Charles Anderson volunteers to be the doctor at a remote refugee camp set up in the aftermath of an earthquake. He is joined by Elise, a German geneticist studying the DNA of a mountain tribe, and Sanjit Rai, a local military officer assigned to protect the camp. As the days pass and the refugees fail to appear, Anderson questions the motivations of those who put him there and his own reasons for fleeing into the mountains, including his decision to not face his devastated son. Anderson's desire to heal becomes twisted up with the clash between east and west, rich and poor, as well as with regional conflict. The prose is sturdy and evocative in this perhaps too sincere and sentimental exploration of what limited power any given individual has to change the world. (May)
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From The New Yorker
The cardiologist Charles Anderson is reeling from the death of his wife, from cancer, when he volunteers to assist with earthquake relief in an unnamed Islamic country that is constantly in conflict with its neighbor (no prizes for guessing). Setting up camp along the mountainous border between the two nations, Anderson and a German colleague never encounter the refugees for whom they have travelled to “a wind-scoured field of stones on the other side of the earth”; instead, artillery fire begins, and the two find themselves embroiled in something resembling the brief high-altitude Kargil War, fought between India and Pakistan in 1999. Huyler has written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and is himself a medical doctor. He writes in a surgical fashion—with precision and care, making no sudden metaphorical movements. Huyler’s protagonist resists easy answers or self-congratulatory axioms in examining the ethics of humanitarian intervention. “Remember that the world is indifferent not only to our fates, but also to the work we do,” he writes in a letter to his son.
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The writing is graceful and exerts a tremendous pull on the reader. It's best described as a drawn out study in character and character development. We're used to seeing this in (often) trite "coming of age" tales that feature young kids--but here instead we have a mature, intelligent, educated middle-aged man adjusting to the slings and arrows of life, whether he wants to or not.
We sit on his shoulder as he makes harrowing decisions and suffers self-doubt; we watch him when he's good and true and beautiful, and when he's not. We see him interact, over and over, with the same few side characters, and watch these relationships as they change and grow, and reveal the core personality that carries the novel.
We are privy to his humanity in a way that few novels allow us to be.
There are indeed a few literary oops! moments, and a few editing mistakes as well, but for writing like this I'd overlook it.
"... my eagerness made me realize that I truly had come for a reason, that the simple freedom of experience was not what I sought. I needed something else, something clear and redeeming and larger than myself, whatever it might be..."
Written in the first person, it's a very personal, interior story, but Charles and the other characters are all beautifully realized. Charles is so thoughtful, he so much wants to do good, but of course things don't work out quite as planned. He finds that the country is caught up in a civil war of sorts and that feeding starving people affected by the quake is not a priority.
"...all the questions of hierarchy and honor, the eagerness to spend precisely what they could least afford on conflict and war, to remake the struggle as one between men when it should have been one between hunger and food, between legs and stones -- suddenly it infuriated me." And later, as he is getting ready to leave and return home, his mission unfulfilled:
"I saw it clearly. I was guilty of the commonest of American failings, a modestly successful man, and no more, and there was so much I could not grasp, and did not understand, and I was old enough to know that I never would. If that was the best I could manage, I thought, it wasn't good enough, because surely there was more.
Surely mine was not the only story to be told."
There is so much more to this novel than I could possibly recount here, including his relationships with other people, past and present. It resonated strongly with me through universal themes ... the desire for a meaningful life, guilt about not giving enough or doing enough for your loved ones, confusion about how to find the right balance, recognition of the simple things that give one's life meaning. Huyler's writing is spare but evocative and compelling. It's one of the best books I've ever read.
The prose flowed better than the last 2 Pulitzer non-fiction winners that I read this spring and the story captivating to a middle aged Alaska MD.
This novel is a gem.