Anna Hunt was a celebrity journalist living in London, relishing in the joys of good quality chocolate and designer shoes. Ongoing health issues and a feeling that something was missing lead Anna to take a three month sabbatical to Peru. Once in Peru, she meets a shaman named Maximo Morales, with whom she later works as his apprentice. Rather than fully embrace either world, Anna becomes a “bridge,” connecting urban luxuries with ancient wisdom, and after training as a shaman, she now runs retreats for urban professionals around the world. These retreats and workshops take place in locations such as Canada, Spain and even in London.
Whilst this book has been critiqued as being a wannabe “Eat, Pray, Love,” Anna doesn’t head off on her adventure with the same hopes that Elizabeth Gilbert had, of having a spiritual experience. Anna just wanted a break. The one real similarity was that both novels explore balance and the importance of achieving an equilibrium in your life.
Initially, Anna seems rather relatable, she has a busy life combining her friends, boyfriend and career. Of course, she happens to be a journalist for a best-selling magazine, her boyfriend is an incredibly wealthy and handsome city boy and her friends are the usual bunch of witty, pretty London high-flyers. Slightly more akin to most of our day-to-day lives, she loves to indulge with chocolate and a pot of tea, but despite these luxuries, she finds herself increasingly disconnected from her life. She is fast approaching a burn-out. Her health is causing issues—she struggles with tummy troubles—and eventually her doctor suggests she take a sabbatical. Conveniently, she has an acquaintance who has extended an invitation to Peru. Inspired by a smiling girl on a Peruvian hiking trail leaflet, Anna decides to venture onwards to the High Andes. After several weeks of hiking, she is introduced to Morales. At first she is skeptical of his legitimacy as a healer and shaman, but pretty soon she finds her life and perceptions changing.
The main message of this book seems to be that you have to find a balance between your Western comforts and your spirituality to be truly happy. When Anna is in Peru, bathing in cold water and placing crystals on her perineum, she often turns to a new friend named Ken, an ex-pat who offers a comfortable sofa with decent wine and scathing wit brought about by his Cambridge education. Anna often hides away with Ken when shamanism proves too challenging and she longs for home. Whilst I can fully appreciate Anna’s homesickness and longing for a decent bar of Green & Black’s chocolate, her constant pining for her Western comforts is only the tip of the iceberg.
As different groups visit Maximo to seek his wisdom as a shaman, Anna spends an awful lot of the novel criticising the visitors. She sneers at anybody that speaks openly about their spiritual beliefs, rolls her eyes disdainfully at the enthusiasm they display for the experience they are having and continually refers to their poor dress sense. It isn’t until a group of well-educated New York professionals show up for a retreat, that Anna stops belittling the visitors and genuinely reaches out to any of them. Perhaps this a tool to relate with the reader, if so it seems crude and clumsy, like a teenage girl at school ashamed of her geeky friend that she really likes hanging out with, but knows will attract teasing from the popular girls. To me, it seems slightly cruel and I’m sure most people picking up a book about shamanism won’t appreciate the constant teasing of the hippies.
As easy as it would be as to dismiss this behaviour as shallow, Anna touches upon the fact that shamans do not believe that the spiritual and material worlds have to remain separate entities, as embodied by the designer clad Maximo Morales who takes on Anna as his apprentice. He is often described as wearing Boss jeans or an Armani shirt. He explains to Anna that he predicts she will be a “bridge” between the Western world and shamanism. However, Anna is infatuated by Morales and it does beg the question: Is he the reason she is so interested in shamanism? If her teacher had been a crusty old hippy in drawstring trousers and a bad haircut, would you have been so interested in pursuing a shaman education? From her quick judgements of many of the people she meets, I am doubtful but as chance would have it, Morales is handsome and charming, so she sticks around to fulfill her destiny.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book and I loved Anna’s journey. She is not flowery in her prose and her straightforward descriptions are matter of fact and leave you with a clear, concise idea of the world she has entered. The novel is engrossing and will have you racing through it. I was quickly hooked and fascinated by the content. There are moments of dazzling insight into human relationships and fears, however it was mostly about Anna and her thoughts and feelings. There is no issue with this—it is a memoir after all. And whilst I have read texts about many of the theories in this book, I believe that they are explained in a way that a novice could understand. Personally, I would have preferred more information about the practices of shamanism, the roots, the culture behind it, especially as Anna interviewed more than 40 shamans as part of her personal research. There was a heavy focus on the romance between her and Morales, which definitely drags the novel into chick-lit territory.
In order to appeal to her target demographic of a younger, female, Western audience, Anna had to be a stiletto-loving, chocolate-gobbling any-woman kinda gal. Even though she discusses at length letting go of her embarrassment and fear for her shaman practices, I do feel as if she has written this book blushingly, worried to give to much hype to her newfound way of life for fear of being ridiculed. Having read many accounts and a lot of literature about people’s experiences with ayahuasca, the entheogen used to induce hallucinations within shaman ceremonies, I feel that Anna almost downplays the experience she had in Peru for fear of ridicule. Yes, she talks about the plant’s effects and Morales’ astounding ability to heal nausea, altitude sickness and long-standing stomach problems, but she seems shy in acknowledging the enormity of her visions and experiences whilst using the plants. She provides detail, but in a disconnected, aloof way.
Despite several reservations, “The Shaman in Stilettos” is a thoroughly enjoyable read for lovers of travel novels, books that offer explorations of spiritual beliefs or alternative practices and the oft critiqued chick-lit. It is perfect for a holiday read, your morning commute or a lazy Sunday afternoon, will give you some insight to another way of healing ourselves and if you’re anything like me, have you looking for the next flight to Peru.
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