The Worst Date Ever, by Jane Bussmann, isn’t what it seems. In fact, you might pick it up thinking it’s fiction. It starts with Ms Bussman as a Hollywood reporter, interviewing the rich, beautiful and publicity-hungry while wondering where she went wrong. She mixes Hollywood gossip with observations on the city of apparently colossal vacuity and the soul-sapping humanity of the PR merry-go-round. Until one day she encounters John Prendergast, an honest-to-goodness globe-trotting Robert-Redford peacekeeping action hero, and vows to follow him until he loves her. She trails him to Uganda, where he’s attempting to broker a peace deal that will end a 20-year war. But when she arrives, he’s not there. Stuck in a country about which she knows very little, she decides to dig around, and what she finds is a very real horror story.
A monster called Joseph Kony has for twenty years been kidnapping children, enslaving them in a child army and generally subjecting them to unspeakable atrocities, while the Ugandan government fails to do anything about it. The UK and US know what’s happening, but support said government’s spectacular failures, while the major aid agencies are remarkably ineffectual. The ‘good guys’ are raking in aid money, while the very bad guys raid schools – undefended despite foreknowledge and pleas from the staff – and take children to be raped/murdered and generally never seen again – unless you’re a nun with the balls to walk into the jungle and get them back. ‘Nightmare’ is an insufficient word.
She reveals a shocking story, and meets the blackest of situations with the blackest of humour, with Hollywood comparisons and plenty of self-deprecating commentary as she tries to figure out the intricacies of the politics, economics and general moral failings. It moves quickly and eloquently through her investigations and, ever so slowly, the story stops being about her. Hollywood recedes, the details of the situation are fleshed out, and you realise your initial impressions were wrong.
By the end the real spirit of the book becomes clear. Ms Bussmann tries and fails to get the story into an insular national press, and eventually only gains traction by presenting it as a tale of her silly crush and the hijinks that ensued. And eventually you realise: this book is her getting the word out. The story isn’t about her at all – the self-deprecation was, by the end, increasingly at odds with somebody so clearly capable and tenacious – it’s about the war crimes.
And this comes as a surprise. It’s called ‘The Worst Date Ever’. The cover is bright, flashy and, um, designed to attract both sexes1. As I said, its non-fiction isn’t obvious, and the blurb says it’s ‘an extraordinary, funny and bittersweet adventure’. It’s not. It’s horrific. But, as she explains inside, horror wouldn’t get any traction – hell, I’m not going to pretend I’d willingly buy a book on Ugandan child enslavement – so the hook is the funny, bittersweet story. And I think this is an extremely clever thing.
It almost seems wrong to point this out. Part of the purpose, I assume, is to get the unpleasant facts to people – like me – who wouldn’t otherwise encounter them. Or, at least to present them in a way that gets under the radar. It’s not preachy, because people don’t like preachy (heaven forbid anyone preach about infanticide). Instead, the facts are made clear and the morality trojan-horsed within jokes, which explicitly don’t say what needs to be said. The humour is necessarily close to the bone, and does its job well, although even this is eventually superfluous – in the description of a ‘protection camp’, in which 14,000 people have so little food that they’re forced to prostitute their children to AIDS-ridden government soldiers, is the line ‘Finally, nothing was funny’. I worry that telling people what the book’s really about defeats the worthy purpose.
But there is a hint: the cover strapline is: ‘War crimes, Hollywood heart-throbs and other abominations’. That’s the rare perfect summary – the description is completely accurate, and the tone in keeping with that of the book, but it takes on a different meaning once you finish. And I expect most people will finish, because the story is so compelling. It certainly had an impact on me – the moment I turned the last page I was on Wikipedia, trying to find out whether the situation has improved, and over the last few weeks my ears have pricked up at any mention of Uganda. Hopefully, this was the idea2.
I’d say it’s a perfect book club read – its subject matter is important, it’s well-written, there’s plenty to get your teeth into, and it should surprise everyone. The Worst Date Ever isn’t what it seems, and comes highly recommended by me.