Book Review: Chai Tea Sunday

When Heather Clark was pregnant with her second child, she started writing Chai Tea Sunday, a novel inspired by her Cousin Rachel’s teaching experiences in Kenya. Moved by stories of the remarkable orphans who gave so much unconditional love, Clark put pen to paper and crafted this tender and hopeful debut novel that can be easily read in one or two sittings.

Nicky and Eric Fowler appear to have it all. The elementary school teacher and lawyer have rewarding careers and  live very comfortably in Toronto, within short driving distances of their respective families. After they suffer a devastating loss, their picture-perfect marriage falls apart.

Eric throws himself into his job and Nicky heads off to Kenya to volunteer as a teacher in an orphanage. While there, she stays with a host family headed by the enigmatic Mama Bu, a wise woman who shares chai tea and life lessons on Sunday afternoons.

I was surprised to discover that Clark has never been to Kenya. She relied exclusively on her cousin’s stories, journals, pictures and videos. She also added her own research of Africa and interviewed an Ontario court judge, a renowned fertility expert and Swahili translators

Her impeccable research skills are evident throughout the novel and add to its authenticity.

I could easily visualize the colourful Ngong market…

“Hectic rows of little stands filled with fruits and vegetables were flooded with Kenyans pushing up into each other, shaking hands or slapping each other on the back…Bright yellow bananas and mangoes were everywhere, with a few stalls offering shoppers unrefrigerated meats and eggs. Fire-engine red tomatoes were piled high into pyramid shapes, and oversized woven baskets were filled with the same bobby beans I had seen in Mama Bu’s garden. Purple eggplant lay beside various greens of cabbage, limes and snow peas, and the smell of spices wafted from the food stalls offering nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.”

And the single classroom that housed thirty-five pupils of eight different levels…

“No kids’ paintings hung on the crumbling cement walls, the thick globs of bright red and purple brushstrokes were still drying from that morning’s art lesson…It was simply a dirty, bare room. Squished together rows of rectangle tables were used as desks. Lining the tables were benches, some broken and some not. All scrunched together in an attempt to ensure that as many students as possible could fit into the classroom.”

A portion of the proceeds will go to Artbound, a charity that provides clean water, medical care, food, and funds to build schools in developing nations.

An excellent debut! I look forward to reading Heather Clark’s next novel, to be released in 2014.

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