Disastrous Passion-a humanitarian romance novel (Book review)

Every summer needs (reading) superlatives and this summer’s global development fiction pick is clearly Disastrous Passion – a humanitarian romance novel.
Well-known for his aid blogging and setting up the Aid Source community, J. from Tales from the Hood also worked on his first aid romance novel. Now, for the first time the complete ebook has been published and I really enjoyed it as a perfect summer read: It’s easy enough for a hot afternoon on the porch, but there are some serious, interesting and even thought-provoking nuggets of aid wisdom in the novel that should take it to the level of undergraduate reading lists (a real compliment ;)!).
As I have confessed in previous reviews on first-hand accounts of aid work in Afghanistan and Iraq, I am a big fan of this genre. J’s fictionalised account from Haiti links it to the growing body of ‘development fiction’ that has recently grabbed academic attention.

In some ways, the book seems partly an ‘update’ of ‘Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures’ with a stronger focus on what now has become an established aid industry that has lost some of its ‘peacekeeping’ appeal that brought the protagonist of Emergency Sex to the aid industry.
But more importantly, the book manages very well to portray post-earthquake Haiti and the challenges (other than romantic...) aid work is faced with. From reflections on food distribution logistics, to cash-for-work salary scales, VIP visits from headquarters to endless coordination meetings on social media, traffic jams and great debates about MSF, secularism and religious aid work as well as on what it means to live in a poor country:

And while it was true, he’d never know what it was like to be poor the way so many Haitians were poor, he also felt as if he’d at least peeked through the window into their world. And that had to be worth something, too (p.110)
The book is obviously written by an insider. There are many great moments, free from clich├ęs, snark and, well, romance that make the novel an excellent ‘study guide’ should you ever contemplate embarking on a (humanitarian) aid mission – whether in Haiti or elsewhere. But this isn’t just an ebook-length blog post. What keeps the story together and nicely flowing are the romantic encounters of the main characters. Some of the scenes really enacted a ‘Fool’s Gold for Aidland’ scenario (don’t ask why I know Susan Mallery’s books ;)...) and there are parties, alcohol and sex!
Whether ‘aidslut’ (m/f), ‘cubicle farmer’ or the son of an evangelical preacher from Kentucky – they all get romantically involved in Haiti and humanitarian aid facilitates more dates than match.com ;)!
But as nothing should go unanalysed in aid writing, I also found more profound questions about gender and relationships lurking under the cover of what started off as an R&R fling in Santo Domingo, for example whether and how humanitarian aid life ‘corrupted’ Mary-Anne or the emotional toll humanitarian aid has taken on Jean-Philippe. In the end, many of the scenarios, although fictionalised and condensed into one narrative, are more or less real life scenarios that you are likely to encounter in any humanitarian ‘theatre’. And before you happily sign up for your first hardship post, the $2.49 may be a great investment in your (mis)education... for the hardened veterans of the aid industry or the chronic disbelievers in academia this is a great way to combine pleasure and work - as Jean-Philippe says ‘I just can’t promise anything beyond Haiti’...

J.: Disastrous Passion. A humanitarian romance novel. ISBN 9781300044628, 132 pages, $2.49, epub at Lulu.com


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