A budding Canadian journalist with a penchant for travel, 27-year-old Amanda Lindhout never dreamed that her adventures would take her to Somalia, where she would be kidnapped by Muslim extremists, held captive with Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan for over 400 days, denied adequate food and water – and live to tell the tale.
But that's exactly what happened to her in 2008. The ordeal unfolds in her book co-written with Sara Corbett, A House in the Sky, Lindhout's memoir of friendship and compassion despite the horrors of being held hostage.
The book opens on Lindhout's childhood in rural Canada. Raised by a working-class young mother and a violent stepfather, her hardscrabble upbringing leads her to fantasize about the far-flung places she sees in her secondhand copies of National Geographic.
In hopes of exploring the world, she forgoes university for a job as a cocktail waitress; she saves up enough money for her first jaunt, a trip to Venezuela and Brazil. But her grandfather warns her, "I hope you know if you get yourself into trouble, we won't have any money to get you out."
Her grandfather's words do little to deter her. Exhilarated by her adventures in South America, Lindhout ventures further, this time into Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Afghanistan, and more. Through her travels, she gets a job lead that lands her a TV news correspondent job in Baghdad.
But she stumbles as a fledgling reporter and – wanting to make her mark as Dan Rather did when he reported on a dangerous hurricane in Galveston – she sets her sights on covering Somalia. "There were stories there – a raging war, an impending famine, religious extremists, and a culture that had been largely shut out of sight. I understood that it was a hostile, dangerous place and few reporters dared go there. The truth was, I was glad for the lack of competition."
She encourages an old flame, Nigel, to join her there. And, while traveling on assignment, their car gets stopped by a band of Somalis. But they're not there to rob them. They're there to abduct them.
One captor "held the weapon awkwardly, as if he'd never done this before. He couldn't have been older than fourteen, I guessed."
"A House in the Sky" is at turns violent, then sympathetic. This isn't a tale of us versus them, nor is this a didactic account of war-torn Somalia. It's an aptly ambivalent psychological journey amidst captivity, isolation, and sometimes torture.
During her and Nigel's imprisonment by Somalian Muslim extremists, the pair survive on little food and water and are kept under constant watch by their kidnappers. At times, their biggest struggle is boredom, and Lindhout keeps herself occupied by walking in circles around her tiny room. "Six, seven hours a day I walked....The bottoms of my feet grew thick."
At other times, she is raped by one of her captors. "I felt him reaching down for the hem of my Somali dress, tugging it upward. I kept talking, my voice muffled, my arms batting uselessly at him. 'Don't do this. Please don't.' He slammed a fist into the side of my head, and I felt my whole body go rigid."
Though "A House in the Sky' is gritty and raw, it's also nuanced and moving. One sees this when Lindhout and Nigel's relationship shifts from that of exes to friends whose fates are tied together: "From our individual rooms, we knocked on the wall, back and forth, several times a day. Lub-dub, like a heartbeat. You there? I'm here." And when the two convert to Islam: "It was not a betrayal of faith – of mine, or Nigel's, or theirs. It was a way to feel less foreign, and in feeling less foreign, we could be less afraid. We were doing what it took to survive."
What lingers in this reader's mind is the extent to which Lindhout's torture arose from her captors' misogyny and yet also the degree to which she was able to understand and even empathize with her kidnappers: "For one split second, I knew his suffering.... It was rage and helplessness....This was the person who was hurting me. His sadness trenched beneath mine."
Keenly observed and sprinkled with arresting details, "A House in the Sky" is more than one woman's heartbreaking tale of captivity. The book sheds light on a conflict area not often painted with nuance. It dares to explore the outer reaches of human empathy. A stunning, haunting, and redemptive read, Lindhout's story is one that stays with you long after the book has been closed.