This deeply impactful novel, contrary to what the title might suggest, is not merely beautifully written and proportioned; it is weighted with historical, cultural, philosophical, and political insights from an area of the world well hidden from the sight and understanding of the majority of Americans. The novel is so dense with authentic-seeming detail that it demands the kind of close attention few novels warrant.
In a L.A. Times interview, Charmaine Craig tells us this novel is based on her mother Louisa’s story. Craig could not have done a better job of memorializing her mother’s memory, and it was heartbreaking to hear her recount meeting the popular Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi a few years ago and being recognized as her mother’s child.
Craig spent nearly a decade writing this novel, using some of the time researching and reading declassified CIA documents to see how her mother’s first husband was murdered in the process of peace talks with the Burmese leadership, apparently with the help of some double-dealing by the CIA. Her mother, a one-time beauty queen, became a leader of Karen rebels in the mountainous eastern region of Burma. While at first Craig did not want the book to be political, it is clearly a political document, and extremely informative for that. It puts the political wrangling in Burma, particularly now in this time of Burma’s opening to the West and the Rohingya persecution, in historical and global perspective.
Books of such regional particularity are rare things in English; that Craig attempts to share with us the tumultuous experience of her parents and grandparents growing up in such a consequential time and in such a distant clime is a rare gift. What makes this spectacular novel well worthy of its place on the 2017 Man Booker Prize long list is not the accuracy of its history, but how Craig’s characters navigate and philosophize their roles in their own fictional histories. Deeply meaningful statements on the human condition are sprinkled throughout the book, observations and philosophies articulated by one or another character facing a great challenge.
The predominant religion of Burma is Buddhist, though many Karens are animist or Christian. Craig spent some time explaining the following phrase:
“It is better to be in a position of having to ask for charity than to be in the position of never having to ask.”This sounds very close to a lesson I’d once heard from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who said that having less than one needed offered an opportunity for developing and expressing compassion. Craig explains that having to ask for something develops one’s spiritual muscle.
In another circumstance, Craig draws a lesson from a Jewish rabbi when one of her characters is appealing for advice:
“One of man’s injunctions is to strive to live joyously. In the face of these terrible wars abroad, when our very peace is threatened, we must find a way to rejoice in our circumstances. We must find a way to do more than endure.”What a remarkable and completely freeing and true thing to say. At the end of the novel, several characters look upon their lives and recognize this necessity to strive…to find greatness in the midst of failure. The lessons are applied, and it is grace-giving and forgiving and loving, despite all.
Individuals engaged in a civil war lasting generations are concerned with the state of their souls:
"I’ve been trying to figure out all these years—in defending our rights with this revolution—is whether or not we have the right to kill…It seems clear enough that violence, murder even of the murderous, is a surrender of a kind. But do we have the right to stand by and watch people be made slaves…"I love that Craig asks these big, earthshaking questions because the answers are the things that may save us. The questions show us we are worthy to be saved. We will all come across these questions in the course of a life and to have a story big enough, consequential enough, to introduce them without pedantry is a tremendous gift.
Craig mentioned in her interview that she worked as an actress for a time until the stereotyping in Hollywood became too much of an obstacle to great work. I can tell her from this side of the screen the failures of imagination by casting directors and producers are agonizingly apparent. But I wish I could encourage her to “be the change you seek” and to write for the screen if she can. I would tell her the country is hungry for diversity of color and experience and she is likely to be very successful, if that is where her heart lies.
I feel so grateful for this big dense book of history and imagination. Craig is enormously talented and I wish her every success. The book is also available in audio, read by the author, produced by Blackstone Audio. The author has a disconcertingly American voice when one might expect something accented, even British. However, were Craig to publish the book she says in the interview that she wrote first--the one about her mother and herself growing up--that American accent would make all kinds of sense. Sounds like a good sequel, doesn't it?
However one consumes this book, I highly recommend it.
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