In 2008, British-Australian writer Heather McRobie released her debut novel, Psalm 119. While much of McRobie’s journalism at the time was focused on post-war Bosnia, her novel follows a young trio who relocate to Palestine, “to be at the center of things … to be in the most exciting, or the most besieged city,” as one reviewer put it. A notion central to the book is so-called “conflict tourism.” Unlike war correspondents, foreign journalists or medics, conflict tourists are seen as having questionable, even reprehensible, intentions. Their approach to a place isn’t viewed as humanitarian or noble, but rather as egotistical, acquisitive, shallow. Her first novel was a flop, in part due to the unresolved tension between this notion (which her book lambasts), and her characters’ participation in it.
A decade later, debut novelist Dan Sheehan tackles this thorny terrain in his book Restless Souls, which hit U.S. bookshelves April 10. In it, a trio of young men from Dublin grapple with PTSD and the aftermath of tragedy when one of them returns from years spent under siege in Sarajevo. One theme in the book is the question of bearing witness, and its uneasy relationship with what he deems “disaster tourism.” In his essay in the Irish Times, Sheehan asks, “When, if ever, does the impulse to experience, by proxy, such extremity of suffering, evolve into something more clear-eyed and useful?” Raised as we were with an unprecedented level of global awareness, we find ourselves asking, what can I do? But we’re also aware that the question itself can be deeply problematic. Untangling this has never been more difficult, or more imperative, and the restless souls in Sheehan’s novel—comedic, blundering, pained—help map the road ahead.
The Irish Times