A Season in Hell, by Robert Fowler

This is the story of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler’s 2008 kidnapping by al-Qaeda.  Fowler  and his  colleague Louis Guay, were held for 130 days in the middle of the inhospitable Sahara Desert, somewhere between Niger, Mali, and Algeria.  While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I couldn’t help but think that it should have been more of a page-turner.  It starts off as such: there is no boring background, set-up, or contextualizing (Fowler could have gone on at length about his UN mission in Niger, which while interesting, would have been a different book, I think).  His abduction takes place within the first few pages.  When Fowler realizes al-Qaeda is his abductor, he realizes that he has a 5% chance of surviving the ordeal, chiefly because he couldn’t bring himself to contemplate a lower number.  It is absolutely fascinating to discover how Fowler and Guay, were able to survive this ordeal.  They had strict rules for themselves such as walking several kilometres along a set track every day and not allowing each other to entertain dark thoughts. But the most fascinating part of the book for me was the relationship that the abductees had with their al-Qaeda captors.  The relationships are nuanced, complicated by completely different value systems (none of his captors ever laugh or have any ‘fun’), language barriers, and such a deep commitment to a violent cause.  It is evident to Fowler and Guay that some of their captors would slit their throats without a moment’s thought, while others among them are more eager for a less violent outcome to the kidnapping.  The reason I suspect that it was not more of a page-turner for me was that Fowler chooses to tell his story in a somewhat non-chronological fashion.  For example, while Fowler and Guay quickly give their abductors nicknames and brief descriptions, it is not until halfway through the book that we discover who these people really are.  There are also references early on to the two men traveling around the Sahara to various camps throughout their ordeal, but the reader does not understand why they are traveling or to where until the last quarter of the book.  For me it made for disjointed reading – certainly not enough for me to put the book down, but enough for me to be slightly frustrated.  I just don’t see why Fowler chose to tell his story in this way.  That criticism aside, I would highly recommend this book.  You can’t help but imagine yourself in the middle of the desert and how you might have coped.

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