Cover Image: We Meant Well

We Meant Well

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

A short but powerful novel about international aid work, power dynamics of race and culture, the position of women in society, 'belonging' and so many more things. The primary strength of this book is the way it talks about the Aid workers, being both critical and understanding of the human beings behind the work. I read this book so quickly because, though compact, it had so many conversations of importance, so many messages and

When Maya's former coworker, Marc, is accussed of raping a young girl she had known very well and could be seen as her protege (Lele), Maya is sent from the US to resolve the situation in the charity in the fictional African city of Likanni. Her conflicts with her husband at home are contrasted often with the situation in Likanni, and I found myself awed by the depth this book covered through these two worlds.

The ending felt like the perfect way to end the book - messy, in the same messy world the book resides within - nothing is perfect, the world is complicated and confusing and all over the place.

<i>I received this novel by ECW Press in exchange for an honest review, which I leave voluntarily - my views have not been affected.</i>

Was this review helpful?

I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley.

We Meant Well is a novel that explores who gets the right to decide who is charitable, what is means to be, and who deserves this gift.

Maya is asleep in LA when she receives a call from a her boss. A colleague in Likanni, Africa has been accused of attacking a local girl and they need Maya to go and smooth over the situation. Maya works for an international, charitable orphanage. How soon can she get there?

When Maya arrives in the town, she is struck by many things - protestors, deteriorating conditions since her last trip, and changes at the orphanage. Upon investigation, no one witnessed the rape. It is the French colleague's word against a local, young lady. As Maya continues to delve deeper, there are many additional conflicts that arise from this situation.

I struggled with this book. I thought the premise was fantastic to open more readers eyes to the horrors of some of these charitable organizations. Are they there to help or to make themselves feel better. However, the writing was all over the place. Plus the ending - I thought I was missing pages!!

Was this review helpful?

A very interesting, engaging read once we really dived into the plot. Maya was an interesting character, but I sometimes found her hard to relate to and her internal monologues frustrating. I also found that much of the beginning dragged the story, and the slow build of the plot is mostly why it's not 5 stars for me. This book is thought-provoking, it's bold, and I think it tackles the issues in an insightful and sensitive way.

Was this review helpful?

A raw, unflinching, and thought-provoking debut novel that examines the shifting roles of aid workers in a fictional African orphanage - not only the personal dynamics of the staff but the reactions and inter-relationships of the surrounding villagers. When her protege and the daughter of the village's chief accuses a male staff of assault and rape, the former administrator is called back from America to once again resume leadership as well as investigate the charge. The conflicting stories, agendas, and loyalties provide a rich backdrop for a in-depth look at the complexities of human behavior. My thanks to the publisher for providing me with an Advanced Reader Copy of this stunning first novel. I'll be following this author in the future.

Was this review helpful?

We Meant Well is a deeply though provoking book about the workings of an organization in Africa. The organization brings access to medical care and education to the community, but they are separate, never truly belonging. One of the male staffers is accused of raping a local villager who works in the headquarters and Maya, the former "Bigaboss" is sent back to the country to determine the truth.

I thought this book was so wonderfully nuanced in describing the issues that surround the work and complexities of aid organizations in other country. Trigger warnings abound as the rape and other circumstances of the villagers are thoroughly described.

My only sadness was that the ending left me wanting. I felt deeply invested in the characters lives and the ending was sudden and left me wondering about what happened to them in their futures. The ending reminded me a bit of the ending of Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam without being quite so jarring.

I highly recommend We Meant Well to anyone interested in these issues or to someone in search of a deep and thought provoking read.

Thanks to Netgalley and ECW Press for sharing this book with me in exchange for an honest review.

Was this review helpful?

This book absolutely mesmerized me and I read it straight in two days...

When Maya receives a call from her boss in the middle of the night, she does not hesitate and gets on the first plane to Likanni (a fictional village in Africa) to unpick the rumours accusing Marc, a colleague from the Charity she works for, of assaulting a local intern girl and protege, Lele.

The author, Erum Shazia Hasan, has obvious insider experience of working for foreign aid in third world countries. The novel has the feel of an intimate first account with vivid and honest descriptions of Africa, its attractions and its challenges. It is full of sharp observations surrounding humanitarian work and the "type of people" drawn to it.
I avidly followed the narrator's train of thoughts as she unravels the chain of events of the "scandal". As her own personal dramas unfold, she draws some compelling and chilling conclusions about the paternalistic, supremacist and still colonialist behaviour of Whites in NGO organisations...

As the title suggests, an important question is raised: "By charity work we mean well...but do we ultimately really do good?"

Was this review helpful?

"I'm in a land where guns are used to kill and rape women. That doesn't stun me as deeply as my husband's deception. It's the casualness of it. The smallness of it, the laziness of it. The fact that I have birthed a child bearing his genes, torn my body in the process, built a human life of hair, nails and skin, on something hollow. I'm breathed in as a wife, exhaled as an excess that can be shed. I'm hyperventilating".

TW: rape

Erum, of Pakistani and Indian heritage, writes of a protagonist, Maya, who is one of few darker skinned 'white saviours' working in the ever-more controversial space of aid and development. Perhaps a little predictably, she's rooted into a (fictional) African town, where now densensitised, she's been called back to look into the accused rape of the Chief's daughter by a fellow aid worker and to oversee ensuring that the 'right' actions are taken. (It's never made clear, however, what the 'right' actions are).

"Ownership? Of the rape? It is mine now? Lele laughs. It has always been mine, Bigabosse.”

One thing is clear. There is little belief by those who spend so much of their life and time dedicated to supporting the community, that the claims are true. Comments that surmount to ‘the more you give, the more they take’, highlight the reality of the relationships formed - there will always be expectations and an expected script from both sides. And let me just say, the twist at the end? It’s perfect.

I recall volunteering in a refugee camp to support the distribution of supplies due to a massive shortage in on-th-ground resources to ensure appropriately divided supplies. Our first - and only - talk on how to act, was 'don't sleep with those who live in the camp. Maybe foolishly, I was amused that this was even considered a risk - given the obvious power-imbalance amongst other concerns, it would be highly unethical to seek out physical comfort from vulnerable citizens. Yet it happened. Erum covers this well in her writing, questioning "how do you ask another to be temporary", whilst the character does exactly this, seeking solace in an individual who needs more and foresee's something in return that will never be shared - an unspoken promise broken before it was ever made.

Additionally, the book highlights the difficulty needed when using external lenses to consider issues outside of your own culture and remit. "You people, always after solutions, forgetting the people and their sentiments. Can we not let the woman be comfortable as she wishes?"

Erum covers the story well. Whilst the protagonist is not particularly likeable - taking joy in the privilege her status provides her whilst begruding more the fact that she’s not seen as an equal to her white counterparts as opposed to more affected by the fact there are two distinctly separate classes established within the aid space - it is still possible to empathise with her struggles of marrying into an unhappy relationship merely to meet societal expectations and the toll it has taken on her, albeit to a wealthy white man who maintains the status quo she also indirectly fuels.

This was an enjoyable read. Thank you to NetGalley for the Arc.

Was this review helpful?

A well written book that I devored from the start until the conclusion and oh what a spectacular conclusion. It raises some hard issues that I think need to be faced and discussed more. Honest and refreshing!

Was this review helpful?

I requested this book on NetGalley because I was fascinated by the premise. This book is a well-written debut about the culture of Western aid workers in developing countries and the intricacies of those relationship dynamics. This story has mass appeal and needs to have a wider readership.

Maya has been called to return to the charity she manages in Likanni, a fictional country in Africa. An aid worker has been accused of sexual assault, and the locals are seeking retribution. The depictions of the country are vivid and evocative, allowing the reader to feel immersed in the scenery and the culture.

I don't personally know anyone who has chosen a life of social work overseas, and it was fascinating to learn about the different types of people who are drawn to this line of arduous and often dangerous work. Maya speaks at length about the protection and privilege White people and Westerners are given in these countries and the vast inequalities that are ever-present. The insight laced throughout the story is perceptive and thoughtful and will prompt readers to ponder many issues that are not frequently visible in their daily lives.

There is an interesting dichotomy between the demeanor that Maya utilizes when taking charge in Likanni, not being afraid to confront people and deal with difficult situations, and Maya in her marriage, where she does not voice her opinions and her rage at her husband's behavior. The power Maya allows her husband to hold and her inability to deal with her emotions in a productive way is difficult to understand. As the story progresses, Maya starts to unravel more and more, losing her sense of direction and purpose, and acting more impulsively. This was not a direction that I expected her to take. The way that Fanon appears and challenges Maya with no fear was a facet of the story that seemed implausible.

I agree with what another reviewer has said, that the author started out very strong but started to veer towards a drama rather than substance. Nevertheless, this book was thoroughly engaging and an enjoyable reading experience.

Was this review helpful?

We Meant Well didn’t really work for me and it made me mad at times. The premise of the story is bold and I was keen to see where the story went. I found Maya sympathetic but disliked almost everyone else in the book. The charity are more concerned with preserving their image than finding out the truth, protecting the local girl they are supposed to be helping and punishing Marc if he is guilty. They just wanted to sav themselves and Maya’s eyes are really opened with regards to the charity she’s devoted her life to. I also disliked the ending as you don’t really find out the truth which ticked me off.

Was this review helpful?

Hasan’s début novel begins with promise and intelligence. It focuses on Maya, a woman who works for a Geneva-based NGO dedicated to running orphanages in Africa. As the book opens, she has been directed to travel to the (fictional) village of Likanni in an unnamed African nation to deal with a scandal. Marc, a colleague with whom Maya worked for a decade, has been accused of the rape of twenty-year-old Lele, a local girl who assisted with administrative duties at the Likanni site. Maya was the one who allowed the child to shadow her on the job some years before. Now, in response to Lele’s sexual assault, violence looms. Enraged locals have gathered for days outside the charity’s office in the repurposed dormitory of a former Catholic monastery. All staff but Marc and his supervisor, Chantal, both French nationals, have been sent home.

Since Maya forged such strong bonds with the people of Likanni during her years there, she’s considered the ideal official to calm the volatile situation. Ostensibly, her job is to investigate the allegations and report to headquarters, but the real expectation is that the charity’s brand be preserved so that valuable donors aren’t lost. As far as Maya is concerned, this is her last undertaking on behalf of the NGO. She’s had enough of the work and is convinced that the West is largely responsible for the very problems it purports to be addressing. She wearily observes that if humanitarian workers are in the field long enough, they can no longer feel at home anywhere. The superficiality and materialism of the West are intolerable, while remaining in war-torn, famine-prone regions becomes untenable. Once idealistic do-gooders have witnessed so much cruelty, violence, and suffering they become blank, incapable of feeling much of anything at all.

Since Maya took on an administrative role in the organization five years earlier, she has typically travelled to Africa only a couple of times a year to perform oversight. Even that has become too much. She now has a young daughter, and her marriage to an older, wealthy, high-powered lawyer is on the rocks. She’s well aware that her husband is having an affair and that when she’s away he brings his paramour to their high-end L.A. home. Another interesting detail about the main character is that she herself was an orphan, adopted from Bangladesh by solidly middle-class, white Californian parents. She has no connection with or feeling for the South Asian country she was born in, no familiarity with its culture, but is frequently asked by Americans where she’s from and notices that people are puzzled by her lack of an accent. In Africa, though, Maya is never taken for anything other than a “First Worlder.”

I was initially very impressed by this novel. It’s full of sharp—and sometimes scathing—insights and observations about humanitarian work and those who are drawn to it. The early part of Maya’s investigation into the Likanni scandal is handled well and convincingly by the author. Maya comes across as ethical, principled, and determined to handle the matter fairly. She knows both parties, Marc and Lele, and in fact credits the former with having saved her life during a traumatic period in Likanni. However, the novel takes a real nosedive just past the halfway point. What seemed to be a serious and realistic work of fiction addressing a compelling and topical matter turns into a melodramatic thriller, largely because of the author’s clumsy introduction of an unconvincing local character. Credibility is sacrificed to a twisty plot. Maya goes rogue, behaving like an unhinged teenager.

My overall impression is that Hasan wasn’t clear about the sort of book she wanted to write. Hopefully, with her next effort she’ll know.

Was this review helpful?

Beautifully written, this book poses some challenging questions and made me think about motivation and true selflessness. Having worked in the charitable sector, there were some uncomfortable parallels. I loved the way the author wrote - the descriptions, the narrative, the characters - just fantastic.

Was this review helpful?

'How nice it must be to believe so deeply in your mistakes.'

Maya worked in international development for more than a decade, running an orphanage that serves the fictional African village of Likanni. For the past few years, she's retreated from the field, getting married and having a child of her own, overseeing operations from the United States. But when her colleague Marc is accused of raping Lele, a village girl who's employed by Maya's company, Maya's ties to the locals, who affectionately call her 'Bigabosse', mean that she has to fly over to handle the situation. Unsurprisingly, Maya encounters a knotted ethical tangle. Did Marc rape Lele? If the accusation becomes public, will bringing justice to this community mean destroying the work they are doing with orphans and destitute children? And what kind of justice does Lele herself want?

We Meant Well, Erum Shazia Hasan's debut novel, is a compulsive read. Maya always stands on uneasy ground, feeling that she belongs nowhere - as a brown woman who was adopted from Bangladesh by an American family and is seen as white by the Likanni villagers, as a privileged Westerner who feels disconnected from her fellow aid workers. Hasan digs into the contradictions that Maya and her colleagues live, suggesting that even being able to ponder these kinds of questions is a luxury. As Maya observes, living in a war zone means that people 'constantly readjust their compasses to the lesser evils of the day... some situations demanding more bad of them than good, for survival. Then they return to themselves, their goodness.' In this kind of situation, personal moral purity is not possible, just as it is impossible for the aid workers, even though they pretend that it is.

I wished, though, that the secondary cast had been presented with greater complexity. Other than Maya herself, the characters in this novel tend to be positioned to espouse a particular world-view; long discussions leave us in no doubt of where they stand. In particular, I felt that making Maya's husband Steven quite so obtuse and wealthy was a mistake; we can all condemn Steven easily, and this means the reader feels rather too comfortable. These choices also make We Meant Well pretty predictable, except for its ending: I guessed all the rest of the plot developments long before. The ending, too, is left a little too loose. There were some plot threads that absolutely did not need to be tied up, but there were others that did: in particular, I felt Lele was reduced to a plot device at the end, and deserved more of a conclusion to her story. Finally, while I understand why Hasan doesn't use a real village I would like to hear her rationale for not naming the country; my worry is that this plays into the stereotype of reducing Africa to a miserable mass. But perhaps this is exactly the mindset she's trying to convey?

We Meant Well reminded me strongly of Nikita Lalwani's The Village, which also focuses on a brown Western woman working with white colleagues in an impoverished rural village, although in India, rather than Africa; but I think Lalwani's book is more subtle, vivid and challenging. Nevertheless, this is a compelling debut.

Was this review helpful?

This was such a thought provoking and propulsive read. I would definitely recommend and it left me with something to think about afterwards.

Was this review helpful?

This is both thoughtful and thought provoking novel that explores the issues of class, race, and me-too. Hasan's writing will pull you in and make you turn the pages- and there are surprises within. Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC. A good read.

Was this review helpful?

A very thought provoking read that introduced me to a whole new range of cultures and themes different to anything I’ve read before.

The writing is fantastic and I devoured this in just a few short sittings (something I rarely do!)

I will definitely be recommending.

Was this review helpful?

**NetGalley and the Publisher allowed me the chance to ARC read this book but that does not determine how I review this book**

We Meant Well by Erum Shazia Hasan is a well written and really pushes you to think more. This book is narrated by the FMC, Maya. Maya works remotely for an orphanage when one day she gets a call to come in due to r@pe allegations against a co-worker.

The ending was a bit predictable but somehow was still able to shock me a little.
Could not give more praise to this debut author? Book out Aprill 11, 2023

Was this review helpful?

I really had no idea what to expect from “We Meant Well”; I was blown after I read it! I enjoy books that give me an insight into different cultures and countries around the world. Aid workers have a difficult task working in developing countries and the mountains they must surmount to achieve success can be overwhelming at times. As in any job, when people are far from home and in isolated locations, things are bound to happen: scandals and gossip can be the order of the day. Living and working in close quarters must be difficult. Add the first world culture to this and you may have a completely different set of values and morals. Ms Hasan brought all these issues out into the open. She also handled the topic of sexual assault with a sensitivity that isn’t always brought to the fore. Details were not unnecessarily written about and that didn’t detract from the story.
The life of aid workers was not glorified; it was brought to the reader realistically. Some workers were burnt out and justifiably so.
Our main character Maya, an American, was brought to the village to sort a problem within the ranks of her organization. Along with this problem were an unrest in her personal life. Hard to separate these two things when you’re isolated and a bit overwhelmed with the ongoing situation.
The book moved at a leisurely pace and I was quite happy with that. At the end of it all, I was really glad I had chosen to read “ We Meant Well”. Great insight into a different way of life in an impoverished country.

Thank you to ECW Press, NetGalley and to Erum Shazia Hasan for giving me the chance to read this beautifully written book.

Was this review helpful?

I can't tell you how much I loved this ARC! I think it's one of the best books I'll read in 2023.

We Meant Well is a debut novel by Canadian author Erum Shazia Hasan. This beautifully written novel follows Maya a young American-Bangledeshi woman, who has given up aid work in a fictional African country for a management position in the NGO. After years of working with orphans, child soldiers and sexual assault survivors, she moves back to L.A, gets married, has a child and lives a "normal" life, albeit not a happy one.⁠ She is never truly at home in LA or in her work village of Likanni.⁠

Maya is called back to Likanni to do damage control for the charity. A white employee has been accused of a horrific act and the company wants Maya to get to the bottom of it. Local tensions are very high but the people of Likanni love and trust Bigabosse as they call her. ⁠

This book is packed with insight into the successes and failures of Western aid in developing countries. Hasan handles traumatic incidents in the book very sensitively.⁠ The problems are so complex and Hasan's writing shows every layer given her experience in many UN agencies as a Sustainable Development Consultant..
⁠Thank you to @netgalley and @ECWPress for the privilege of reading this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Was this review helpful?

We Meant Well had an intriguing premise and certainly succeeded in dissecting the role of the 'humanitarian'. I enjoyed the immediate style of narration and the slow build of tension -- although we understand that something bad has happened the novel snakes its way around to addressing it. The book left me with much to think about and respected that it asks more questions than it can answer; the strange power dynamics of those who give up their lives to 'help' the less fortunate but then want something back set an eerie tone. Unfortunately, I don't think the plotting was as strong. I didn't gel at all with the romance and the ending didn't quite land in the way I hoped it was.

Was this review helpful?