A Long Walk Home by Judith Tebbutt: A story told with heroic self-control

The story of Judith Tebbutt and her husband David, who were captured in 2011 on the border between Kenya and Somalia, is all the fuller in book form, where the small, astonishing details filter through.

A Long Walk Home: One Woman’s Story of Kidnap, Hostage, Loss – and Survival
Judith Tebbutt
Faber & Faber, 204pp, £16.99
 
To read news reports of western visitors taken hostage in what have, until quite recently, been thought of as idyllic holiday destinations is to experience a chilly frisson and a feeling that it might be just as well to take a vacation somewhere (Cornwall, say) where kidnapping for ransom is still relatively uncommon.
 
But some stories linger in the mind for longer than the day’s headlines and, for me, Judith Tebbutt’s kidnap in late 2011 was one of those. Her husband, David, who was murdered during the violent incident on Kenya’s border with Somalia in the course of which Judith was taken hostage, was the friend of a friend who told me that Judith was partially deaf. I thought of her often during her cap tivity with pity and horror, wondering how she was surviving and how her only son, Ollie, then 25, was coping with the death of his father and the abduction of his mother.
 
In September 2011, Judith and David Tebbutt were on safari in the Masai Mara game reserve. Africa was a place of special signi - ficance to them. They met and fell in love in Zanzibar in 1976, when David and Judith’s first husband, Peter, were both employees of the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines. Judith had married young, to a chap from her home town of Ulverston whom she had met while working at an electrical components factory.
 
“Too late, we found out we really had nothing in common and no means of making the other happy.” For David, her feelings were quite different: Judith fell in love with him before she even learned his surname. After a courtship of a few months, they decided to spend their lives together and, by 2011, they had been blissfully married for 33 years.
 
The trip to Kenya was David’s idea. Judith would have preferred to go to Zanzibar but was persuaded by David to visit a remote beach resort, the Kiwayu Safari Village, where the former guests had included Mick Jagger and Tracey Emin. When they arrived at the place, Judith’s misgivings increased. It was utterly remote and the doors and windows of their thatched hut were covered only with blinds.
 
Reassured by David, she was deeply asleep when she was woken by a commotion. As David struggled with an assailant, two men holding rifles seized Judith and dragged her from the hut into a boat, which sped away from the land.
 
It was the beginning of 192 days of terror, loneliness, hunger, uncertainty and grief. In some ways, Judith was particularly unsuited for captivity in brutal conditions. She was 57 and suffered not just from deafness but from a congenital heart defect. But she was to discover that her reserves of resilience were at least equal to her fragility. Her training as a social worker specialising in mental health had given her valuable experience in dealing with violent or irrational individuals.
 
“There is nothing as bad in life as to have no hope, to believe you have been defeated, and to give in to that,” she writes. “I wasn’t prepared to countenance that fate for the women I worked with . . . And now that I found myself in confinement, I would not accept it for myself.”
 
The account of her captivity makes ex - quisitely painful reading: again and again the reader wonders how a physically fragile middle-aged woman could bear the humi - liations and hardships to which she was subjected. Her captors, Somali pirates who intended to ransom her, fed her as cheaply as possible, on small portions of potatoes and rice. She was confined to insect-infested cells, given no facilities to wash herself or her clothes, frequently had to share accommodation with her gun-toting captors and, some weeks into her captivity, learned from her son, who had been contacted by her kidnappers, that her beloved husband had been murdered by them.
 
But somehow she willed herself to survive. She weighed no more than five stone on her release, and her account of learning to live in freedom without either her husband or her job (which she was obliged to give up, as the publicity surrounding her case made her too conspicuous to continue her highly sensitive work) is deeply affecting.
 
Extreme as her experiences of violence and privation were, it is the small details that are the most plangent in this account, cowritten with Richard T Kelly: the freshly cooked samosas secretly passed to her by Amina, the pirates’ cook; the incongruously pretty sequins on the curtains of her prison and – most bitter of all – the loss of David’s wedding ring, stolen from his body before it was flown back to Britain.
 
Tebbutt describes her experiences in language that is almost formal, as though she were writing a case study. The businesslike tone can appear incongruous, but when she allows herself to express emotion, as in her final chapters on resuming what will never again be her “everyday” life, it becomes clear what heroic self-control has been required to tell her story.
 
“My life won’t be the same,” she writes, “but it is life itself, and its value is clear: it is all that wehave.”
 
Jane Shilling is the author of “The Stranger in the Mirror” (Vintage, £8.99)
Judith Tebbutt pictured at a house in Adado, central Somalia, before her release more than six months after she was abducted from an isolated Kenyan resort. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism