by Mark Lee
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Pub. Date: May 2003
A war corespondent's report on love, "The Canal House", is a fast-paced and intense journey. We see the world through the camera of Nicky, an experienced American photographer sent by Newsweek to cover the most dangerous war-torn hotspots. Nicky has become bored with even the most exciting stories and jaded with the bureaucracy of journalism. In fact, the only thing that interests him at all is the love affair between Daniel; the reporter that he is assigned to travel with, and Julia; an aide worker that the two met while interviewing rebels in Uganda. Nicky can't help but turn his camera and his full attention on his colleagues' budding relationship, and he learns a lot about the passions and perils of a dangerous subject: love. The pages turn quickly, and the affair becomes jeopardized by the tensions of a new violent conflict that the three are sent to witness, this time in East Timor.
It is obvious that "The Canal House" is written by a well-trodden journalist. Mark Lee has the sarcastic lingo down. He describes the smoky bars and the run-down hotels and we know that he must have been there himself. The characters, with all their eccentricities and hang-ups are realistic and very believable. Always on the move from one country to another, they have to look over their shoulder and must choose carefully the people they can trust. Mark Lee describes the each scene as if it were a photograph - panning in and out of the situation, finding the perfect shot, making it a still frame. Sometimes shocking photos stick in your head and won't leave you alone. Some of the scenes in "The Canal House" are as vivid and as horrible as only a photograph can be.
Lee brings up some interesting issues facing modern journalists. The characters struggle with the fine line between simply telling the story, or becoming involved in the situation itself. As Daniel falls in love with Julia, he begins to feel the need to help the people that he is writing about. He justifies his actions by saying that it will make a great story if they follow the aide trucks around East Timor, but soon other journalists are writing about him as he becomes more a part of the conflict than just an observer. The characters also attempt to separate their personal lives from the conflict that surrounds them. They try to escape the conflicts and the news industry by hiding out in a house on the banks of a river that they nickname the Canal House, but they quickly feel the need to get involved again.
"The Canal House" is suspenseful and highly relevant considering the continuing world crises that flare up daily. Though it ended with a few loose threads, I still put the book down feeling giddy and a bit dazed - like when you walk out of a good movie or witness an amazing band - in this case, a dramatic and exciting new novel.