Author: Catherine E. Johnson
Onyz Productions, 2009
356 pages/ Fiction
3-1/2 out of 5 stars
When I read the first page of Born to Return the Gift, which includes both a sincere acknowledgement to God with a list of twenty scripture references and a “Respectful Warning,” I knew I was in for an interesting literary outing. The warning goes on to state, “This novel deals with adult issues. Explicit sexual content and profane language keep it real.” Ah, yeah, no kidding. While not full of sexual content, the book has some sections that rival Penthouse Forum material. That alone isn’t odd, but the intermingling of those two very divergent topics—explicit sex and God—you don’t often find in the “Religion” section of the bookstore. I loved the honesty and visceral nature of the book. Keep it real, indeed.
The book chronicles the adult life of hard-luck, fictional Nyima Chante Robbins, an African American woman in her fifties living a series of failed attempts to secure a somewhat normal lifestyle in a world of dysfunction—including her own. She journeys to California where she hopes to find normalcy in the areas of life many of us take for granted: keeping and securing long-lasting and meaningful employment, long-lasting and meaningful friendships, and long-lasting and meaningful love relationships. Her failure rate for these three areas of her life is heartbreaking, but the story of her quest is usually very engaging and interesting. As the reader watching her struggles, you see where Nyima goes wrong time after time, and the temptation is to confront the dysfunction and shout, “Stop!” However, that temptation lessens when you know to do so would unfairly judge Nyima—and anyone else in that situation. Moreover, isn’t that part of the problem? People like Nyima are judged as failures or losers by those unfamiliar with her world.
The author, Catherine E. Johnson, tells Nyima’s story through a number of flashbacks during the last two weeks of her failed experiment of living in California looking for a new life. Unfortunately, the author waits toward the end of the book to divulge the character’s early life, as well as Nyima’s bizarre spiritual experience of being trapped in a hell-like world. (What was that? Was it hell?) Disappointingly, the author does little to explain the experience fully. I would have loved to see the book intersperse these more interesting elements throughout the story to create better pacing and increase interest in the plot. Waiting for the last 45 pages of a 345-page book to reveal so much is so unfair to the reader.
There are too many basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, and word choice errors in the book to mention here, and they often distract from the content. Sadly, this number of errors only helps to solidify that this is a self-published book—those regrettable errors that create the reputation that the self-publishing world is still in need of polish, finesse and the experienced eye of an editor. It’s a shame that this kind of final product sidetracks us from the skills and creativity of an author.
Overall, it’s a promising, inspiring and uplifting book by a very promising author. Johnson has potential to be a gifted writer but needs to work on a few basic things—namely, finding a decent editor— before we can take her seriously as a published author.
Reviewed by David Stucki (Electric Eclectic)
You may also read this and other book reviews on Mark McGinty’s blog, The Boogle.