Patricia Henley: Hummingbird House

Patricia Henley
Hummingbird House
MacMurray & Beth

SET IN THE war-torn Central America of the late 1980s, this novel is nothing if not tragic. But it isn't war, deprivation, or fear that causes so many problems for its expatriate North American characters; rather, it's a stubborn bout of ennui, a laziness and uncertainty that seems out of place in this urgent setting.

Michigan-born Kate Banner starts off more enthusiastic than most, due to her involving work as a midwife. But when she loses a patient, she loses her resolve--this after more than a decade at her trade--and flees Nicaragua for Guatemala, a way station on a journey back to the United States. Is this midlife crisis rooted in the anguish over Banner's dead patient, or was it really her grief over the death of her relationship with Mark Deaver, a self-centered scumbag who wears his pants annoyingly low on his hips? Yep, and yuck.

Why earth mother Kate spent the best decade of her life with saggy-pants man makes little sense in this narrative. For that matter, Kate herself makes little sense. She heads to Guatemala and moves into a "safe house." Safe indeed: Call it a Peace Corps version of Melrose Place. This household of cagey North Americans eats well, falls in and out of love, and does a little human-rights work on the side. Mostly, though, this cast whiles away the time watching from the sidelines as the locals suffer. So what do these screwed-up graduate students, recovering alcoholics, and one lone priest see? Human rights atrocities, kidnappings, and political murders.

"She had not thought about the country she was entering," we learn about Banner. Why not? we're left to ask. Banner's friends involve themselves in subversive activities, and then are abducted and murdered, and we're left to wonder how it is she's managed to live in Central America for so long without a clue to what's actually going on.

Author Patricia Henley spent five months touring through Central America before writing Hummingbird House. Perhaps this explains why she's able to pen such lush descriptions of the tropical landscape and glue-sniffing children, but is pretty thin when it comes to the what's-actually-going-down complexities. Granted, Henley did wander around one of the most incomprehensible political scenes in recent history, and a short half-year spent getting up to speed lends but limited insight. Her vision is more in focus when she's gazing into small domestic battles and victories, and that's where this tale, amid so many dead, comes to life.

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