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A House in the Sky

by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

As a child growing up in small-town Alberta, living in a dank basement apartment where her mother often suffered beatings at the hands of her boyfriend, Amanda Lindhout found escape in copies of National Geographic she bought from the local thrift shop. Years later, after much travel in exotic locales, Lindhout would find herself incarcerated in another dank room, this one in Somalia.

Along with her partner Nigel Brennan, a photographer with whom she was working as a fledgling journalist, Lindhout was kidnapped and held prisoner for 15 months, during which time she was gang raped, beaten, and tortured. When her captivity ended, Lindhout learned that her abductors’ original targets had been a National Geographic reporter-photographer duo she’d met the day before she was taken.

With writer Sara Corbett, Lindhout has penned a memoir of astonishing clarity and power. Equally fascinating is her description of the mental strategies she used to cope and her elucidation of the dynamics between herself, Brennan, and their teenaged jihadist guards. Lindhout and Brennan’s relationship was rocky at the time of their capture, and though their mutual plight intermittently brought them closer, their solidarity often foundered. After converting to Islam in the hopes of receiving better treatment, the pair was physically separated (an arrangement that facilitated Lindhout’s sexual assault), and Lindhout deeply resented the fact that Brennan, as a man, was permitted greater freedom while she was left shackled in a windowless room.

A chapter describing Lindhout and Brennan’s bold escape attempt (the bricks of a prison wall were surreptitiously removed, Shawshank Redemption–style) is one of the most breathlessly gripping scenes you’ll read anywhere. Lindhout and Brennan burst screaming into a mosque filled with worshippers in the midst of morning prayers, only to be publicly dragged off again by their captors. The lone person who came to their aid was a woman whose specific fate continues to  haunt Lindhout.

Though they survived their ordeal, Lindhout and Brennan (who published his own memoir two years ago) are now estranged. Somewhat remarkably, Lindhout has managed to forgive her captors, and considers the dire circumstances faced by millions of Somalis – including her torturers – to be the story’s real tragedy.