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Photogenic Fiction

Political thriller tailormade for Hollywood

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If Mark Lee's first novel, The Canal House, is not in pre-production at a major film studio as you read this, then maybe the rumors are true: There is no hope for Hollywood.A former foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times and Atlantic Monthly, Lee has written a fast-paced, globe-spanning tale of love, faith and revenge set amid some of Europe's more photogenic venues (London, Rome) and some of the world's more notorious recent political hot spots -- Sudan and East Timor.

While the novel deals with those current events, the political intrigue, stock characters and fundamental questions of commitment suggest that The Canal House shares key traits with a film about characters caught up in history and forced to make difficult choices: Casablanca.

Not too far from that Moroccan city of World War II intrigue, the main protagonists of The Canal House first cross paths at a squalid refugee camp in Uganda near the Sudanese border. The primary love story, between Daniel McFarland, the jaded, apolitical, anything-for-a-story journalist and Dr. Julia Cadell, the dedicated, anything-for-a-patient doctor, begins its slow burn here, despite the presence of her nominal boyfriend, the ridiculously wealthy, anything-for-my-political-career Richard Seaton. The sexless wallflower, Nicky Bettencourt, photographer, shares narration duties with Julia and accompanies Daniel everywhere he goes.

The camp, it turns out, is practically a gift for Julia from Richard, who has ambitions to be prime minister of England one day and now sees the aid game as a shortcut there.

"Mr. Seaton is making a transition from capitalistic exploiter to world philanthropist," explains African bureau chief Matthew Vickery, a mysterious Sydney Longstreet-type character.

But Seaton isn't the only one whose ethics wilt under the spotlight. Julia lambastes the unfeeling careerists at the UN and the many aid workers whose main concern is forgetting their nasty divorce or bankruptcy back home. Of most journalists she is just as wary.

"Most of them only spent a few hours in the relief camp, then trivialized our work into little vignettes of brave doctors and sick babies," she recalls of her experiences here and in Sierra Leone and Bosnia, her previous postings.

The most flagrant hypocrisy occurs during arguably the most important aspect of aid distribution: fundraising. This one is at Richard's castle in the British countryside. The conspicuous consumption and circus sideshows (literally) of this exercise in excess serve two purposes: to grease the wallets of Seaton's peers while simultaneously reminding them what a can-do guy he is.

The extravagance, however, also backfires. Finally sickened by his controlling ways, Machiavellian plotting and basic greedy nature, Julia accepts Daniel's clandestine offer and skips the manse with him.

They head to London and seek refuge at one of Daniel's friends' homes overlooking a canal. It's here that the two disengage from the outside world, "getting to know" one another as intimately and often as possible. After several weeks, the two lovers take off for Italy and Daniel's modest but gorgeous home in the countryside south of Rome, where their idyll continues unabated -- until one day, almost a year after they took off, when Richard and his bodyguard show up. No hard feelings, Richard says, he comes in peace. He begs Julia to return to the aid distribution group to right its sinking ship. He promises it will be a temporary position.

Daniel argues against going, but Julia's sense of responsibility wins the day. "Instead of changing ourselves," she realizes of their stay at the Canal House, "we had acted like fugitives, hiding from the world, avoiding our responsibilities."

Soon enough the entire cast of characters is reunited amid the anarchy of East Timor. It's in the middle of this civil war that Lee resolves the major issue confronting one of the protagonists, while revealing the true character of at least two of the other main players. It's a decent plot twist that isn't totally surprising but is executed well enough to hold some punch when it's delivered.

Even more impressive is Lee's ability to create a believable atmosphere in which this love story and its subplots take place. Through strong descriptive passages and engaged characters, the war scenes in Dili, the capital of East Timor, read like outtakes from the scenes of firefights, looting and anarchy in Iraq.

Of course, by the time Hollywood gets finished with it, The Canal House will probably morph into a buddy picture with plenty of T&A for the Spring Break crowd. So much for Casablanca II.


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