Review: Burn My Heart

Burn My Heart by Beverly Naidoo

I originally wasn’t going to review Burn My Heart for this blog. It was such a fleeting, forgettable experience that I thought I’d just let it slide right out of my personal history, something I’ve only done once before, with the novel Misfortune—it had blindsided me and left me quite confused. But those were the early days of The Literary Omnivore; now, I must respect my blog’s position as my reading diary, as well as entertain the hope that this review is the mental blockage I’m feeling at the moment.

Burn My Heart is set in Kenya in the 1950s, during the beginning of the Mau Mau Uprising. The Mau Mau are a group of revolutionaries who want their land and their freedom back from the white man, and the “settlers” are quickly growing suspicious and conflating every native Kenyan with the Mau Mau. White farmer’s son Mathew has never questioned his father’s claim to the ancestral lands of his “friend”, native Kenyan Mugo—Mugo is only too aware of the precarious position he occupies as servant and confidante to the oblivious Mathew. As the Mau Mau force Mugo, his family, and his friends to pick a side, and Mathew blunders into a situation that will change everything forever.

This is yet another book for my young adult and children’s literature class at school (yeah, my school is awesome), and it came after The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I found that juxtaposition quite interesting; Burn My Heart opens with a fence scene that outlines Mathew and Mugo’s characters, and Mathew’s obliviousness reminds me of a more willful version of Bruno’s fable-like innocence. Unfortunately, this is a novel so overpowered by its chosen social justice issue—here, the Mau Mau Uprising—that it forgets to bring along the essentials.

The reason, I think, that Burn My Heart slid off my brain like so much water off a duck’s back is that Mathew and Mugo never undergo any character development—one can argue Mugo undergoes negative character development, but, ultimately, these two are static characters; a workable and even good choice for supporting cast, but never for a protagonist. Mathew, especially, is a hard character to like, much as I imagine Bruno would be were he removed to anything remotely resembling reality. He doesn’t understand what’s going on, treats Mugo as his best friend (although Mugo doesn’t think about him all that much), and remains oblivious to the end—as Mugo is forced to leave his ancestral lands, Mathew chases after him with a packet of biscuits for him. It was maddening having to spend time with this character, especially when Mugo’s experiences were more interesting than he was (or, to be honest, than Mugo himself was).

The novel alternates chapters between Mathew and Mugo, which is pretty standard for a middle-grade novel focusing on a “friendship”. (I feel odd calling it a friendship, because Mathew is so oblivious and Mugo, while still young, sees so much; it’s wildly uneven, and calling it a friendship asks us to side with Mathew.) As Mathew and his father make friends with the charismatic but violently racist Lance and his father, Mugo has to deal with the struggle between a long, peaceful path and a quick, violent path to deal with the white interlopers while trying to stay neutral. But the pacing is stuttering, especially when it comes to Mathew’s chapters, and the fire that the cover talks about is, in fact, the climax of the book. It’s just too subdued, and the writing is nothing to write home about. I don’t have the book on me, so I won’t go any farther, but ultimately, while Burn My Heart is a useful educational tool to introduce the Mau Mau Uprising to children who previously knew little about it, it makes for a forgettable novel. At least the UK cover is nice.

Bottom line: Burn My Heart is a middle-grade social justice novel that’s overwhelmed by the issue it’s bringing to light—here, the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya during the 1950s. I’d say more, but ultimately, it was just forgettable.

I bought this used book off of Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Review: Burn My Heart

  1. When I run into books like this (forgettable) I struggle with whether or not to write a review just for the sake of writing one. I think negative reviews and plain blah reviews have a place though and that’s what usually makes me put something together even if it’s merely to say I read and didn’t love it.

  2. I have to review forgettable books really fast or I can’t think of anything to say about them. I have a running list somewhere of books that I read, forgot about, and didn’t review. I keep thinking one of these days I’ll fetch out my list and write a blog post that takes care of them all, and it will feel very satisfying, like the way you feel after you’ve done all your house cleaning or paid all your bills.

  3. Thanks for reviewing it anyway. That’s the kind of book that I would pick up because I’d never read anything about that subject and then would be utterly disappointed. Have you read any fiction on that topic that you would recommend instead?

  4. The only other strictly fictional treatment of white settlers in Kenya that I know about is M. M. Kaye’s ‘Death in Kenya’, which is really set just after the MauMau uprising had been brutally suppressed, and whose speaking characters are all white (it’s written as a crime novel which happens to be set in Kenya, where Kaye lived for a while – her husband was in the Army). Kaye is a good deal less sympathetic towards the native Kikuyu than Naidoo apparently is, and her white settlers are convinced that they’re entitled to the land they’ve made fertile and profitable through their own hard work – she makes the point (I don’t know how valid it would have been) that the settlers in the Rift Valley were ceded territory there by the Masai, and it never belonged to the Kikuyu who claimed it. Still, even in this book (written in the 1950s) Kaye is a bit more subtle about her characters than your review shows Naidoo’s to be.

    It’s a shame that some authors who want to showcase some important themes or events often end up sacrificing plot and character to their chosen issue.

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