Honor Among Thieves (book review)

As more and more great reviews come in for J.’s latest installment of his aid work(er) romance novel, I am pleased to share some of my reflections on J.'s Honor Among Thieves.

Since I have followed and reviewed the writing evolution of J. in his first two novels (
& Disastrous Passion) I found HAT a very good transition from more traditional notions of ‘the field’ to an established development ‘Aidland’. Cambodia, the country, people and politics, makes an enticing, but also very sobering backdrop to the book’s main story line: While creating a project for a 500,000 Dollar corporate donation, Mary-Anne shuttles between the country office in Phnom Penh and the World Aid Corps’ headquarters in Washington, D.C., becoming more and more entangled in office politics, donor realities and contemporary aid discourses.

A general sense of tiredness with the aid industry
About half-way through the book I made a note that the book is definitely less ‘romantic’ than the predecessors. There is a sober and sobering element of aid business mixed in with a more exhausted and less excited and curious Mary-Anne. J’s writing manages to convey this message well and you can almost imagine how the paths of the tired aid worker J. cross with that of the author J. who also gets a bit exhausted in his third novel. It works, because the tediousness is one of these subtle, easily overlooked, hardly researched and barely written down facts of aid work that you cannot share in academic publications or policy reports. Put simply: If you find some of the details of engaging with a demanding corporate donor ‘boring’ you will be surprised how so much more boring a lot of the realities of aid project management are!

Phnom Penh and Cambodia are an excellent choice for this shift in tone-the excitement and action that was present in the first two novels (featuring Haiti and Somalia) make way for the routines of Cambodia-a country that has accommodated aid for decades now. Instead of helping
beneficiaries, aid has is absorbed in managerial routines, bickering with headquarters and talking to country office staff or acquaintances in an expat bar-anyone but poor people...

The absence of romance in Mary-Anne
s life is also noticeable; the aid worker romance that was always more than just emergency sex is gone and a slightly cheesy love story between Trevor and his massage parlor girlfriend Reaksmey adds a globalized, stereotypical element of modern ‘relationships’ to the framework.

Aid, debt & massage parlors

While the previous two novels were driven by humanitarian emergencies, HAT offers the reader more nuanced and subtle food for thought about aid work: Once the story moves to one of the few field visits to the country side, ‘poverty’ is less visible and more deeply entrenched in vicious poverty cycles of rain/climate change/bad weather, migration, money-lending and de-facto enslavement-nothing another new primary school or women’s empowerment project have been able to ‘fix’.
It is Boupha, a senior local WAC staff, who expresses the stagnation and change in Aidland very well:
It stuck and bothered her that so much of it all was about foreigners imposing their will on Cambodia, on her. It wasn’t 1990 any longer. Educated, experienced, qualified Cambodians who knew the culture and the needs were everywhere. Yet the foreigners were still doing their thing in Cambodia as if Cambodia was theirs to practice on. And on that point the mercenaries of the 80’s, the UN and the aid workers of the 90’s, the Western development workers, followed by the onslaught of Taiwanese and Korean corporate investors of 2000 and beyond were all virtually indistinguishable from each other. (p.120)
Maxima Enterprises corporate donation or American-traveler-turned-social-entrepreneur Trevor’s new outfit are all continuations of entrenched power dynamics in new forms and with fancier websites.

‘I’m not sure it’s been worth it’
What I like about HAT in particular is that J. adds important nuances to questions around aid worker well-being, career planning and basically ‘a life in aid work’.
We have started to discuss the burn-out, drinking and unstable relationship side of the issue more openly, but Frank and Patty’s life stories raise interesting questions about long-term planning: Frank owns an expat bar together with his Cambodian wife Miew and wants to retire near beaches and calmness and Patty, WAC’s country director, reflects on her ‘life in limbo’:
The years that led her to this moment suddenly seemed to run together in a monotonous blur, like two decades of groundhog day. The past twenty-plus years had been a succession of decisions made—in retrospect—almost casually, somehow with tacit underlying beliefs that next time things would turn around or that next year she’d make a change. And for the first time it occurred to Patty to ask herself if it had all been worth it. (p.130)
The tiredness is almost palpable by the end and from a literary perspective adds nicely to J.’s non-fiction writing and blogging.

‘Every aid maid for herself’ Patty toasts at one point, but in reality the ‘honor among thieves’ takes its toll as Patty reflects on her exit strategy:
She could consult, take the jobs she wanted without being permanently tethered to a particular organization’s worldview or structural idiosyncrasies. And when she needed a break from the lunacy, the pretentious self-righteous, the intellectual incest, the penchant for endlessly reinventing the same tired concepts in new jargon-laden buzzphrases...(p.299)
Mary-Anne’s life takes more of a backseat in substantial parts of the book and quite fitting for the context there is no happy ending and just a vague hinting at a new gig in Syria.

I find it difficult to judge whether the third novel is J’s ‘best’ so far. It is less aid romance and focused on Mary-Anne’s love and work life, but I find it the strongest contribution to the emerging and growing ‘learning about aid through literary representations’ genre-an important feature that other reviewers seem to share as well.

As with the previous installments, I can recommend J’s book highly to students, educators, ordinary citizens and aid experts alike. Honor Among Thieves offers plenty of food for thought and discussion – excellent aid edutainment for the 21st century!

J.: Honor Among Thieves.
ISBN 978-0-9893659-7-0 (paperback), 275 pages, USD 5.62 (Kindle) & 8.95 (paperback), Evil Genius Publishing, 2015.

Full disclosure: J. kindly asked me to be one of the blogging ‘beta readers’ and provided me with a free copy of the ebook


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