'Reporting Lives' is Debra Picket's fiction debut. She is a long-time writer and award-winning reporter/columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2004-5 she made a series of trips to East Africa to cover the response of the Chicago philanthropic community to the AIDS pandemic and subsequent orphan crisis there. While there, she began developing the idea for this book, which is largely based on her experiences.
'Reporting Lives' tells the story of Sara Simone, a twenty-something single woman and reporter for a local Chicago television channel. She is tall, attractive, and emotionally crippled. As a reporter she's intelligent, intuitive, and extremely confident to the point of narcissism. We never learn if her emotional unavailability is due to a tragic family accident which occurred during her college years. She does mention feeling some guilt for choosing not to accompany her parents on their tragic journey, though the author never ties that into Sara's inability to commit to a relationship or open up honestly to friends or co-workers. Perhaps her behavior is a result of parental unavailability, as she was raised by two highly successful and driven professional parents.
Regardless, it is this lack of human connectivity which sets her up for a fall on an assignment which has lead her to the slums outside Nairobi, Kenya.
After a bus load of Kenyan exchange students die in a fiery crash on a Chicago freeway, Sara is sent to Nairobi to get video of the families' reactions to the loss of their children and brothers. Sara has the unique ability to draw out this type of story. Things don't go as planned and she spends two months traveling the countryside--not quite breaking through her own emotional walls to find meaning to the abject poverty all around Kenya, and the root of her uncharacteristic response to it.
While Sara seems to wander through the story, passively bouncing from point to point--even her crisis in the Mathare slums seemed randomly inexplicable, out of character, and lacking remarkable impact--the strength of the author's prose and African experiences come forward to win the day.
Descriptions of Nairobi and later at a hotel near a game preserve came alive for me. I had spent a few years in South Africa during its financially independent and economically robust period during apartheid, working in the townships of Soweto, Chatsworth, and others of the Bantu Tribes and mixed races. Then, returning decades later to find a struggling economy with many of the opulent hotels and businesses in disrepair, or boarded up, many of the scenes described in this novel were particularly poignant. There, in the hotels and restaurants, is where we meet the many characters which make this story grandly diverse.
Though Sara Simone never came alive to me as an empathetic and active character, many of the secondary characters did. Trisha, Simon, Vince, even Mr. Handleburg, and many more all came to life with depth and personality. Finally, Ms. Picket's skill with word craft brought the scenes to life--from a horrific accident on a rain-slick Chicago freeway to the desolation of the Nairobi slums, and the marginal existence of post colonial, and post embassy bombing, Kenyan tourism.