Hostage Three — the name Somali pirates give young, British, Amy Fields after they hijack her father’s luxury yacht off the coast of Somalia — is the story of how a teenage crush in exceptional circumstances brings a dysfunctional family emotionally together. Amy is the rebellious and somewhat self-destructive teenager, who is traumatized by her American mother’s recent suicide, neglected by her rich, busy father, and disdainful of her new, cheerful and pretty stepmother. A gifted violinist, Amy is expected to enter the Royal Academy. However, this plan falls through when she is expelled from her last high school exam and fails her A-levels. Father too is in crisis, it turns out, for he is fired as CEO of an investment bank for selling sub-standard mortgage derivatives. This, however, does not appear to affect the family’s financial situation. Mr. Fields buys a large luxury yacht and takes the stepmother (as Amy calls her) and Amy herself (not quite eighteen yet and thus not really able to refuse) with him on a cruise around the world. After passing the Suez Canal — which Lake, in Amy’s voice, describes beautifully — Somali pirates board the yacht when it exits the Gulf of Aden.
Most of this novel consists of Amy’s account of what happens on board during the weeks that follow. Eventually the pirates take the boat to Eyl, on the coast of the Somali regional state of Puntland and, after several bloody incidents and many rounds of negotiations, the yacht and the hostages are released. In the process, Amy develops a crush on one of the pirates, Farouz, an educated young man in his mid-twenties, with striking grey eyes and a kind disposition. Farouz returns Amy’s feelings and, during nightly chats and accompanied by (restrained) hugs and kisses, they exchange their tragic stories: Amy that of her mother’s suicide and how she might have prevented it if she had paid more attention to her mother’s last telephone call; Farouz that of his escape from the clan cleansing in Mogadishu, where his parents were shot in front of him, and his difficult flight to Gaalkacyo, during which he (then about eight years old) and his slightly older brother experienced great hardship and violence.
Overall, this is a beautifully written, fast-paced narrative, with a strong story-line and compelling psychological portraits of the characters: the rich and well-meaning but emotionally inadequate Dad; the unexpectedly bold and upbeat stepmother; astute and articulate Amy, continuously second-guessing her reluctant feelings of attraction to Faruz; the gentle and enigmatic Faruz, and so forth.
That the story cannot end well for the love-struck couple is perhaps predictable, but the form Lake gives to this — testing out two different endings –is original and creative. The hostages, however, escape safe and sound, released after payment of a ransom of five million dollars by either the yacht’s insurance company or perhaps Mr. Fields himself. Amy, who had given up playing her violin after her mother’s suicide, plays it for the first time on the ship for Faruz and gets her music career back on track. The hijacking ordeal and her own experience of being in love help her to acknowledge her father’s love for her and to accept his remarriage. At the end of the novel, the British family has been healed and the fact that Dad was a major crook, who cheated and lied to amass his fortune, is conveniently set aside. Faruz and his pirate colleagues do not get off so easily and pay a high (and, in Faruzs case, the ultimate) price when the British Navy attacks them as they are about to get away with the ransom. Perhaps Lake wanted to show that he, in the end, does not approve of piracy; in contrast, condoning financial malfeasance appears not to be something at which his audience is likely to take offense.
For Africanists, it is Lakes nuanced rendering of the context of the Somali pirates that is most interesting. While the portrayal of Farouz, who hopes to use his share of the ransom to spring his brother from prison, is positive, even somewhat romantic — as the son of a professor of music he even plays the lute — other pirates are not represented so attractively, though only one of them is presented as a one-dimensional hardened thug, who is shot by Farouz when he tries to rape Amy. This contextualization is what makes the book worthwhile for readers interested in Africa; it presents the pirates as desperate men responding to a harsh environment with very limited opportunities, but also differentiates among them and neither fully glamorizes nor demonizes them. His use of Somali folktales, whose punch lines are often used, like proverbs, as ethical commentary, is powerful and helps aspects of Somali culture come to life.
Nevertheless Lake’s research on Somalia is not perfect. One does not get a buzz from having a few twigs of khat (a leaf stimulant widely chewed in Somalia) in ones mouth for a few minutes; getting high on khat requires a bunch of twigs chewed for at least half an hour (p. 190). The lute music played by Farouz does not share a genealogy with the music brought to the U.S. by African slaves (p. 242). That the pirates would drink large quantities of overly sweet coffee to accompany their khat sessions make sense, but why would they not boil the water if they had opportunity to do so? Does Lake here try to signal an underlying primitiveness (p. 101)? It is unthinkable that young Farouz would offer an Imam sex in return for admission to a small Quranic school in the town to which he had escaped and in which he must have had many relatives, however distant.(p. 144). And the incident during Faruzs flight, when his brother ransoms his and Faruzs life by agreeing to be gang raped, receiving a knife from his rapists as part of the bargain, struck this reader as very unlikely (pp. 165-167). However, these are relatively minor quibbles, highlighted here for an Africanist audience.
Hostage Three introduces young adult readers to the world of troubled teenagers and Somali pirates. In her review of the book in the New York Times of 8 November 2013 (”Rough Waters”), Sara Corbett hit the nail on the head when she concluded: “It may require a luxury yacht, a self-involved banker and his rebellious rich-girl daughter to sail teenage readers into these waters, but we can be glad that they get to make the trip.” Nick Lake fiction for children and young adults is internationally acclaimed and he won the Michael L. Printz award for his In Darkness, a novel about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake from the perspective of a young boy. Hostage Three is of similar high quality; it comes highly recommended.
Reviewed by: Lidwien Kapteijns Wellesley College