In the late 1980s, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Southeast Asia. When I learned that Sharell Cook left her comfortable life in Melbourne to volunteer at a women’s centre in India, I anticipated revisiting my own experiences of cultural confusion and personal transformation. In Henna for the Broken-Hearted, there’s not much at all about Cook’s brief time as a volunteer. Fleeing her crumbling marriage and tired of the Melbourne party scene, Cook goes to India to find ‘meaning’. Unfortunately, most of this leaden memoir is about the party life she finds when she gets there and, of course, the man she meets, whom she will later marry.
Overusing adjectives and platitudes, Cook often refers to ‘the universe’. She also complains. A lot. And her list of irritations is long: she can’t stand squat toilets, leering men, nosy neighbors, dirt, double standards, corruption, and irregular Internet connections.
Once I recognised Henna for the Broken-Hearted is a typical story of a thirty-something woman growing up, I looked for other reasons to like it. Did she lose herself in exquisite descriptions of the Indian landscape? Not really. Did she compose humorous portraits of the people she encountered? Again no. Was she curious about the lives of others? If she was, her curiosity rarely poked through.
Cook claims the decision to make her life in India was transformative. On one level, it was. She’s learned another language, unfamiliar customs, even patience. But on the deeper level of seeing the world with new eyes, I’m not so sure.
Perhaps if she had written her experiences in a journal and left it to season over time, she might have produced something wise and worth reading.
Henna for the Broken-Hearted