Kelly Nicholls had a successful few years as director of the U.S. Office on Colombia, a small organization in Washington on whose board I served. I hadn’t heard much from her after she moved back to her native Australia. Then, in April, she sent me an advance copy of her first novel, set in Colombia.
When I started reading A Reluctant Warrior, I confess my first thought was “uh-oh.” I knew Kelly to be an able researcher and organizer, but not a storyteller. The first pages introduce you to Luzma, a forcibly displaced Afro-Colombian woman on the country’s embattled Pacific coast. I feared I was about to read a relentless tale of injustice, with wooden characters suffering at the hands of greedy elites and sadistic thugs. A story peppered with NGO buzzwords like “civil society,” “rule of law,” and “impunity.” I’d know what’s going to happen next, and the moral would be “if only an unfeeling world wouldn’t stand idly by.”
I was so wrong. Kelly has written an absolute page-turner. Her style is cinematic. The plot is fast-paced and includes some surprising twists. With few exceptions, her characters are complex, believable people. She has deep knowledge of the region where the story takes place, and it comes through on every page. And she did a lot of research, exhibiting a surprisingly detailed knowledge of Soviet-era Russian submarines. (You’ll have to read it to get the reference.)
The novel appears to be set about 10 years ago. Luzma is a strong-willed twenty-something following in the footsteps of her late mother and great-aunt, who are community leaders. Paramilitary violence forces her family to flee to Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port city. There, she crosses paths with a narcotrafficker with an ambitious plan to move many tons of cocaine, a corrupt army general, U.S. DEA agents, foreign human rights defenders, and brave local leaders.
The characters are not cardboard figures. The drug lord is cruel and ruthless, but terrified of his superiors. The DEA agents are helpful, not just thick-headed cops obsessed with their next big bust. A soldier forced to take part in the corrupt general’s plot is a pawn from a working-class background with a strong sense of right and wrong.
The plot keeps you wondering what will happen next. The dialogue is screenplay-worthy. And the ending is satisfying, neither “happily ever after” nor tragedy. As often seems to be the case in Colombia, victory is incomplete, and the story could go on.
There are some small issues. The American volunteer, from Peace Brigades International, is a bit too dashing and flawless. Readers unfamiliar with Colombia may be confused by the “bad guys” described both as “paramilitaries” and the “Norte de Valle cartel.” The narrative soars when the author takes a few sentences to give readers a vivid sense of what Buenaventura is like: what the streets or people’s homes look like, how people dress, the sounds of motorcycles and blasting music, the smells of food or sewage. Here, Kelly’s eye for detail and her love for Colombia’s Pacific region come through, but some of it seems to get sacrificed to keep the plot moving.
This is a terrific read, though—Kelly Nicholls transports you to Colombia’s Pacific and, in a few fast-paced hours, you will learn a lot about the country, the causes of its violence, and its courageous local leaders. A Reluctant Warrior is available at Amazon in paperback for $15.17, and as a Kindle book for $7.99.