A Long Walk Home by Judith Tebbutt

Reviewed by Victoria Best

judith tebbuttOf all the truly terrifying experiences that life can hold, I would imagine that being kidnapped and held hostage must be up there with the worst of them. The chronic anxiety of not knowing what will happen next, the claustrophobia of imprisonment, the disgust at the conditions in which you are held, the fear of all who surround you…. How must you feel, then, if a few weeks into such an ordeal, you discovered that the husband you believed was negotiating your ransom had in fact been killed in the kidnap attempt? This is what social worker Jude Tebbutt had to go through, an ordinary woman wholly unprepared for the catastrophe that would befall her, and yet, as it turned out, a woman with immense resources of courage and fortitude. Her story is an extraordinary one and had me oscillating back and forth between horror at her plight and admiration at her response.

Back in September 2011, Judith Tebbutt and her husband David set out on a challenging holiday of a lifetime. David was a particularly adventurous traveller, and wanted to go on safari in Kenya. For relaxation afterwards, they had booked themselves a week of luxury in the coastal resort of Kiwayu. This was a compromise – Judith would have preferred Zanzibar. When they arrived at the resort, the place was eerily empty. Nor was Judith happy with the security; the beach hut they were staying in had blinds at the doors and windows, there were no locks at all. The very first night, they were woken by intruders, who bundled Judith into a waiting boat at gunpoint. The last she saw of her husband, he was struggling with one of their attackers.

For the next few days she was slowly and arduously sailed up the coast to neighbouring Somalia, and it became apparent that she had been taken by pirates who were hoping to exchange her for a hefty ransom. Eventually she was taken to an inland compound and left in a hot, dirty room with mostly insect life for company. She was on a starvation diet – a tablespoonful of cooked potatoes at breakfast and the same amount of rice for her evening meal. Small wonder that when she was finally released, she weighed a mere five stone. The compound was bustling with pirates, and Judith was aware that the better relations she could foster with her kidnappers, the less likely she was to suffer violence at her hands. She wasn’t supposed to be able to see out of her room, but sometimes she could manage to lift the door curtain without drawing attention to herself, and observe the comings and goings of the strange group of people she was now forced to keep company with. Judith had names for them all – Vain Man, The Negotiator, The Fat Controller, Hungry Man, until eventually she learned some of their language.

In her normal life, Judith was a social worker, trained to deal with sometimes dangerous and violent psychopathic cases. She drew ceaselessly on her experience, using it to keep calm in the face of her kidnappers, and to help her stay mentally afloat during the rigors of captivity. At the same time, aware of the need to remain as physically well as possible, she walked round and around the small space of her enclosure, imagining herself walking her way home. The tenacity with which she hung on to her inner resources is humbling to read about, particularly once she has learned that her husband has died –  a message given to her by her son, Oliver, who is now having to negotiate for her release. In the aftermath, the pirates (for once shamefaced at their actions) struggle to understand her grief, and hasten to shut her up. ‘Yeah, is no problem,’ one tells her. ‘Your husband dead, you go home get another husband.’ To survive this takes resilience indeed.

This book is testimony to Judith’s strength of character, and to the sustaining love of her family. She wrote it so future grandchildren might know ‘what an intrepid, brave and heroic grandfather they would have had, and also what a mentally strong and resolute man is their father.’ It is also a declaration of her own determined response to her experience; she has spoken at several conferences on organised crime. I ended the book full of awed admiration for her. She does not deny the deep damage inflicted on her life by the experience, but nor will she let the pirates ‘take any more’ from her. If only we could all be assured of behaving with such courage.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Judith Tebbutt, A Long Walk Home (Faber & Faber: London, 2014) 978-0571303069, paperbk, 352pp.

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