Leda, a wealthy young American woman, has spent essentially her whole life trying and failing to find a calling --- from photography to cooking. But something in her life is perpetually missing. On a whim, she responds to an advertisement for a volunteer to assist at an orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya.
When Leda arrives in the Kibera region of Nairobi, she is immediately horrified by the filth and overcrowding in the slum. Has she made a terrible mistake? As soon as she arrives at the orphanage, however, she begins to feel at home, particularly when she meets Ita, the handsome Kenyan man who runs the orphanage. They are immediately drawn to each other, both spiritually and physically. And Leda also finds herself deeply sympathetic to the compelling stories and fragile personalities of the young boys in Ita's care. Although she is unaccustomed to being constantly surrounded by other people, and despite never really feeling at ease in the cramped streets of Kibera, she begins to imagine a life in this place, a calling that might actually be more than a glorified hobby.
"What makes WHAT TEARS US APART different and worthwhile is primarily its setting, a time and place that will be unfamiliar to most American readers.... WHAT TEARS US APART explores betrayal and forgiveness on both a micro and a macro level, and will provide plenty of material for book club discussion or quiet contemplation."
Both Leda and Ita have dark and complicated personal histories, which they reluctantly share with each other as they grow closer together. Leda suffered from years of emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of her mother. Ita holds on to a complicated and conflicted friendship with a rough gangster named Chege, their relationship based on a series of huge favors owed to one another as well as a complex notion of loyalty and responsibility. As Leda in particular becomes less sure of how to let a real relationship into her life, unrest is gathering around them. The year is 2007, and the Kenyan presidential election is about to erupt in a torrent of violence, murder, rape and destruction. Will these two fledgling lovers be able to find peace in a place that's falling apart?
Debora Cloyed's second novel is in some ways a conventional romance --- two deeply attracted (and attractive) young people kept apart by forces outside their control…but not before they share some pretty steamy sex scenes. What makes WHAT TEARS US APART different and worthwhile is primarily its setting, a time and place that will be unfamiliar to most American readers. Of course, exoticism does not in and of itself make for a well-crafted novel, but Cloyed goes far beyond the surface, not only embedding her characters in the culture and politics of Kenya, but also making readers care profoundly about this place and its people. Cloyed also introduces complexity both in the way she tells her story --- a narrative that travels back and forth in time and between the points of view of Leda and Ita --- and in the intricate moral landscape she constructs. Her characters are all fundamentally flawed, haunted by the "little monsters" that compel them to commit bad deeds despite their best intentions.
WHAT TEARS US APART explores betrayal and forgiveness on both a micro and a macro level, and will provide plenty of material for book club discussion or quiet contemplation.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 29, 2013