Verdict: TWO YEARS OF WONDER, Ted Neil’s part-memoir, part-spotlight on AIDS-plagued Kenyan kids is powerful, enlightening and nuanced, strongest when it’s focused on memorably resilient characters and weakest when it exposes its own artifice.
A clear-eyed retelling of time spent as a humanitarian treating childhood AIDS patients, Ted Neill’s TWO YEARS OF WONDER is strongest when focusing on the stories of resilient children. Neill crafts composite stories of Kenyan students who are brought together, often by tragic circumstance, to an orphanage in Nairobi. Ted works here, but he’s not your stereotypical volunteer, out to stroke his ego by scoring savior points. Even with years of retrospect, Neill constantly struggles with his role as a “white savior” and an outsider; he’s acutely aware of his privilege, his hunger for impact and recognition, and the ways in which his minor discomforts pale in comparison to the kids’ everyday lives. This radical self-awareness is part of why, after returning from Nairobi and witnessing the very human downfall of the humanitarians who once inspired him, he finds himself at the edge of suicide.
Neill’s near-suicide attempt and recovery are tackled with as much insight and honesty as the stories of Ivy, Sofie, and the other children who survived the stigma and abuse that comes with an AIDS diagnosis only to (in most cases) lose their lives to the illness itself. That being said, there’s a slight disconnect between Neill’s story and the children’s. The kids’ tragic sagas unfold in a third-person narrative whose unadorned, flowing prose echoes the perspectives of young narrators who are largely unable to process the trauma and social stigma that accompanies their sickness. These sections are like a light in the dark, assuredly illuminating a world that looks totally different than the one most readers are used to seeing. On the other hand, passages about Neill’s own experiences are fraught with self-doubt and meandering introspection, forthcoming and blatant where the kids’ narratives are reserved and symbolic. Both are compulsively readable, and both capture a staunchly unromantic yet inevitably touching vision of Kenya, yet the simplicity of the kids’ sections works best.
TWO YEARS OF WONDER is a powerful book whose only real issue is one of presentation. In the Author’s Note, Neill admits that the book is a mix of fact and fiction, drawing on dozens of real accounts (including his own), but also creating composite characters and including moments “borrowed from the experience of other volunteers in a few instances.” Ted Neill is concerned about being forthright, and for the most part, he needn’t be. The stories stand up on their own, composites or not. However, that last admission, of borrowing from other volunteers, is a vague statement that undermines the impact of the book. How much of Neill’s story is his own? If, as it seems, all of it is based in fact, why did he include such an expansive section on his narrative liberties? There is no doubt that Neil has gained the trust and confidence of TWO YEARS OF WONDER’s subjects, but a few lines in the Author’s Note still manage to undermine what is otherwise an easy, compelling, and inspiring read.
TWO YEARS OF WONDER, Ted Neil’s part-memoir, part-spotlight on AIDS-plagued Kenyan kids is powerful, enlightening and nuanced, strongest when it’s focused on memorably resilient characters and weakest when it exposes its own artifice.
~Valerie Ettenhofer for IndieReader