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'People can get a compulsion to fix the place. Cambodia can be seductive like that' - author Maeve Galvin

Debut author Maeve Galvin worked as a humanitarian for the UN and tells Tanya Sweeney how her new novel explores the 'saviour complex', and the lure of hedonism that can seduce many foreign aid workers


An exploration of motivation: Maeve Galvin's novel is every bit as thrilling and complex as its setting

An exploration of motivation: Maeve Galvin's novel is every bit as thrilling and complex as its setting

The Saviours by Maeve Galvin

The Saviours by Maeve Galvin

An exploration of motivation: Maeve Galvin's novel is every bit as thrilling and complex as its setting

As anyone who has been there knows, Cambodia is a bubbling mass of contradictions. Natural beauty and friendliness collide with grinding poverty and corruption, for a start. In Phnom Penh, piles of rubbish languish in the gutter next to skyscraper hotels with glossy cocktail bars. It attracts people for many reasons.

"Expats call Phnom Penh the 'playpen'," Maeve Galvin, who has worked in the country as a humanitarian, smiles. "It's a very particular setting - for people with any kind of compulsion towards addiction or hedonism, it might not be a great place, especially if you have unlimited [financial] resources."

There are, famously, the 'sexpats' who frequent Street 51; the backpackers and tourists, and then those who arrive into the country for humanitarian work. And even in the latter faction, there are divides.

Bray native Maeve Galvin, formerly a journalist, decided to work in the NGO sector after fostering a keen sense of social justice in her first career.

"Originally, I wanted to be [journalist] John Pilger," she smiles. "But when I graduated in 2008, I had this social justice ambition, too. I didn't have what it took for a career in journalism, but then I found myself reading more and more about NGOs. My heroes like Christina Noble and Mary Robinson did this kind of work, and if you grew up in 1990s Ireland, there was certainly this idea of people doing good work over 'there'.

"I was curious about it - I started on an internship with Amnesty International, went on to do a volunteer post in Nigeria, and then went on a funded year with the UN to Cambodia."

Her time there forms the inspiration for Galvin's first novel, The Saviours. Much as its title suggests, the book explores the idea of the 'saviour complex' that is inherent in many foreign aid workers.

While in Cambodia, Galvin came across foreign aid workers of different stripes during her three years there. Many were certainly in the job for the right reasons, like the book's character Janice Steiner. Janice is one of the country's most eminent and respected activists and aid workers. Janice's daughter Caitlyn is full of ideals, and similarly keen to 'save' the troubled country. Caitlyn meets Galwegian Tom, who is over in Cambodia to help, certainly, but also to contemplate his next life move. He is by turns seduced by Cambodia's hedonistic streak, and envious/resentful of the profligate ways of the humanitarian big guns.

"In Cambodia, there can be a lot of stories about people who came on holiday and then fell in love with the place," explains Galvin.

"There's that sort of self-appointed 'mission' thing going on. I'm conscious of that compulsion that people get to fix the place. Cambodia can be an incredibly seductive place in that way. Also, there's no real regulation when it comes to setting up an NGO here. You can get a business visa pretty much on arrival, and it's a place fertile for this kind of saviour complex.

"There's a lost soul component too to the ex-pat scene," Galvin adds. "In a place like Cambodia, you can have characters like Tom, living at the high end of it. Even if you don't earn a lot of money, Westerners can have a very enviable lifestyle with drivers, top-end restaurants, beach resorts… the pay disparity between locals and international workers creates a huge social gulf.

"Overnight, a Westerner who is lower middle class becomes a one-percenter in Cambodia. Even if I take my own experience, I was treated well and revered, and the privilege is really something I wanted to shed light on. It's really uncomfortable, not based on merit.

"In fact, it's undeserved for a lot of Westerners. It can lead to arrogance, and people behaving in a way they mightn't in their home country. Those things need to be called out."

In The Saviours, Janice and Caitlyn have a compellingly fractious relationships: for all their similarities, they rub each other up the wrong way. Caitlyn often accuses her humanitarian mother of abandoning her with her father in the US to follow her dreams of charity work in Cambodia. The relationship gives The Saviours yet more propulsion.

"I did draw on personal experience, and I could draw on what Caitlyn goes through a little," says Galvin. "I'm just fascinated by non-traditional family set-ups, too."

Above all, Galvin wanted to shed a light on the intricacies of aid work.

"This work has an interesting relationship with passion, and it's an industry in which you need professional skills," she notes. "The likes of Tim are a minority, but if someone is a selfish person, but good at their job, does that matter?"

Still, having passion for aid work doesn't come without a price, and in the novel, Janice soon reaches the brink of burnout, burdened by responsibility.

All in all, Galvin has delivered a transportive novel that is every bit as thrilling and complex as its setting. It asks many intriguing questions about people's motivations to move to a country like Cambodia to 'rescue' people.

"Passion isn't always a great compass, in fact it can be exhausting," Galvin observes.

"I made Caitlyn 25 years old, because at that age, passion is a power that can often be misguided.

"There's definitely a relationship between idealism and burnout going on throughout the book - passion can be dampened a lot by pure exhaustion in this sector."

The Saviours, published by Merdog Books, is out on Friday priced €15

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