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A True Story from Hell on Earth

by Kenneth Cain ; Heidi Postlewait & Andrew Thomson

Pub Date: June 1st, 2004
ISBN: 1-4013-5201-4
Publisher: Hyperion

An earnest report from the trenches, filed by three UN humanitarian aid workers with plenty of bad news to relate.

The tale opens in New York, with young Heidi, married to a high-powered model agent with a taste for the good life, seeking “the perfect little black fuck-me dress to wear” to an industry party. She is dissatisfied with her lot: “I’m thirty years old and my life is over.” Flash forward to Harvard Law grad Ken, who has little interest in the suburban life suited to “ninety percent of my classmates because it provides shelter for all that mirthless self-confidence.” Ken decides instead to save the world, following the path of social-service doctor Andrew, the son of missionaries who has seen his fair share of misery. In 1993, the three meet in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, assigned to monitor the first free elections since Pol Pot left town; there, Heidi reckons that she can save enough money to set herself up decently in New York, Andrew grumbles that the old-school humanitarian aid scene is being overwhelmed by arrivistes, and Ken worries that the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge are now targeting UN workers. Their work done, the three rocket off to trouble spots around the globe, places like Mogadishu, Port-au-Prince, and Srebenica, doing good and eluding danger. The three-voiced memoir is a nice idea, but none of our narrators is a particularly skilled writer, all tend toward sentimentalism (Heidi: “The pure beauty of death is as impossible to describe as the birth of a child, the betrayal of a lover, the moment of orgasm”), and no one delivers any real surprises: from them we learn that war is hell, life as an aid worker is alternately dangerous and boring, and the world is unjust.

A modest contribution to the literature of humanitarian aid, joining such recent superior efforts as Philip Rieff’s A Bed for the Night (2002) and Jason Carter’s Power Lines (2002).