Review by Julius Mwangi
The book, Through the Belly of the Whale, by Wanja wa Ndungu, is constructed on the author’s eventful and unfortunate youthful adventures that subsequently led her to alcohol dependence and other related challenges. She writes from the lens of one who has endured intense misery, hopelessness, ineptness, and depression; someone who self-imprisons to flee the monsters of guilt and hate but ultimately lacks the capacity or will power to set self-free. It’s when she reaches rock bottom – that place where the prodigal son had been; that place where Jonah had been; that place where Paul had been, that she realizes, only she could determine whether to or not to take the journey back to freedom, safety, and sobriety. She chose to.
The book is seemingly written to parents, presumably of persons suffering from addiction of any sort, and those bound by any kind of addiction, alcohol, drugs, prostitution, pornography, and so on, and offers “the power … in the blood of Jesus, which is able to set one free.” It is a fast paced account that cuts through daring adventures and experiences only the author could have navigated. Her story requires courage to tell and she does this with grace and humility without shying to reveal personal details, thus corroborating the real challenges of alcoholic addictions. In telling the story, she speaks for those whose voices have faded, perhaps permanently; those robbed of normalcy by addiction; and those who addiction has placed labels on.
The narrator does not, in the least, celebrate her wrongs nor does she justify her wrong choices. She does not come out as a self-seeking make believe writer focusing on the emotions of the reader, rather she validates her personal experiences through the pages as she narrates her gruesome journey. She in narrating her experiences faces them again, perhaps for the last time. Like a knight with a shining armor, she seemingly slays and mutilates every one of them as she candidly ushers the reader through the narrow paths of her intricate struggles, the unfortunate road accident that led to misdiagnosis, self-pity, rebellion, and eventually alcoholism. It’s a road frequently trodden, but few are bold enough to face the cynicism, sarcasm, acerbity, or causticity in retelling their story.
The book has six unconventional chapters, unconventional because every chapter speaks passionately of her challenges. She cleverly navigates through the different stages of her life while intensifying alcohol related challenges and intertwining the deficiencies with biblical texts. Her mishaps begins with one simple act of rebellion against her parents, which torpedoes her to behavior deficits destructive beyond her wildest imaginations. Ndungu confesses, “I knew I was an alcoholic when I couldn’t function without alcohol in my system. It was the power that drove me; the force that controlled my every movement Alcohol was the first thing in my mind and the last thing before I slept” (2015,50). She recounts her rape ordeal that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion “made possible, in the slums of Nairobi, through the help of a high school friend.” With this abortion, she claims, “a part of me died as well” and accelerated her drinking and risky living/behavior, as bitterness and resentment towards men, and depression, kicked in full throttle. Yet she wanted out, but couldn’t. At the end of chapter three she finally admits, “if there was any time in my life I wanted out…this was that time”(2015,85). In her apprehension she admits, “nothing but the mighty hand of God was holding my soul in place”(2015,86).
Being a nursing professional she speaks of her ailing medical conditions, which sadly was not enough reason to marshal her back to sobriety. Instead as she becomes more aware of her condition, she withdraws from people, oversleeps, and has excuses for just about anything; calls off-work so many times that she was let go, which ultimately leads to an eviction notice from her apartment. Accepting it was time to change, she unveils her struggle of taking the first step to recovery as the predominant and hardest step to take. In the meantime, every delay to recovery plummets her deeper into depression, denial, driving violations and tickets, suicidal ideation, and risky living. In the end, her friend Angel rescues her but issues ultimatums on lapses that the narrator systematically broke. Unable to tolerate this, Angel kicks her out of her home, and this becomes the beginning of the narrator’s reality check as she seeks help from her cousin who takes her to a detox center, and the beginning of her recovery.
While Through the Belly of the Whale is a book full of drama with pages filled with shocking revelations, insights, and motivation, it is nevertheless a sad story of the narrator’s struggles with wrong decisions, wasted opportunities, and indeed the follies of alcoholism and other addictions. Yet in displaying her weakness, her faults, and failures, she ultimately stands out from the rest as she identifies and remains faithful to those struggling with addiction of whatever sort and assuring them of a way out. The illustrations and testimonies she offers are relevant, realistic, and relatable specifically to those in or affected by addiction. In so doing, she successfully promotes an awareness on alcohol addiction and its destructive attributes.
Through the Belly of the Whale, was first published in 2015 by New Vision Publishing Services, Cincinnati. It is available through Amazon.com and the author’s website www.wanjandungu.org.