Thursday, 9 March 2017 | Karen
Open My Eyes is the first novel from an author whose life experience has provided her with the richest material with which to craft a beautiful story. Mariam is a midwife volunteering in Addis Ababa, where she encounters both her past and her future in ways she does not expect. She finds herself fighting for the life of an abandoned premature baby, using the unconventional methods of kangaroo care and donated human milk. Meanwhile she antagonises hospital management, dates a handsome doctor, and tries to piece together a sense of her own pre-adoption world.
Alice Allan creates a real sense of the colours and dust and smells of Ethiopia, while telling the tale from multiple perspectives, so that each character's story develops at its own pace. But this is not just a book about falling in love with a baby; we also have a mild thriller smouldering alongside Mariam's story, although there is little for readers to figure out, and the rest of the book is so strong that this plot is not really crucial.
The biggest strength of the book is the chapters written from the baby's perspective. I have never read prose that so powerfully captures the sensations of a newborn. If you need a way to convey the baby's limited, terrifying world, or the importance of skin to skin and comfort, Alice Allan does this with the most poignant and effective insight. I read three pages of this book to a group of colleagues, and the effect was breathtaking.
This is a many-threaded story, and the central thread is that tiny fragile human, buffeted by the needs and the limitations of the adults in her world. It's really wonderful to read fiction so heartfelt, so accurate, and so moving.
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