With 17 books under his belt, I have a lot to catch up with Pete Hamill. I have recently bought North River and Forever and started the former. The story is simple enough: a stroller with a three-year-old boy was left at the door of James Delancey’s walkup on asnowy morning. The boy, Carlito, is his grandson. His mother left for Barcelona to look for her revolutionary husband who was a member of the Mexican Communist Party. So the beleaguered doctor who ministered to the poor and the down-and-out now has one more person under his roof, a little boy who needs more than just nourishing—an emotional upbringing and a safe home. Hamill’s New York is one that is cottage industry in literature and film—the Irish misery. But the ground has been covered so often at this point that it risks cliché. Presumably the only trick left is to go even farther than your predecessors did, pile on the misery even thicker. At 77, Hamill is at his best when he writes about his city. He knows New York present and past, and he is able to make us taste the early-20th-century time frame of “North River”, which is the Hudson River.
I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:
What book(s) do you find yourself going back to? Beloved children’s classics? Favorites from college? Something that touched you and just makes you long to visit?
(Because, doesn’t everybody have at least one book they would like to curl up with, even if they don’t make a habit of rereading books? Even if they maybe don’t even have the time to visit and just think back longingly?)
I find myself returning to books that sparkle with contemplative prose. Many stories have stayed with me over the years but certain books have really stuck with me because of how the stories were told. Without further ado, I give you my treasured list and urge to grab these reads:
CROSSING TO SAFETY by Wallace Steger. The intense narrative power of the quiet prose brings into life a friendship between two married couples. It’s really a love story, not in the sense that it explores romantic dialogues and actions, but in the sense that it explores private lives. In the guise of friendship, sustained through births, outdoor adventures, job losses, war, moving, unrealized dreams, and thwarted ambition, Stegner offers, with an uncanny sensitivity, a glimpse of the physical and emotional intimacy in marriage that go largely unspoken out of respect and loyalty.
THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A tragic love story that takes place in a society of which the values have gone awry. Gatsby is a man of desperate love who has been blinded by rotten values. He doesn’t know that while pursuing his dream, it’s already behind him and that Daisy will always be like that green light at the end of the dock in an unreachable distance. Fitzgerald’s language once again proves that his prose is unfilmmable, without the latest release of the film adaptation.
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro. Subtly plotted, this novel gives the impression that characters and scenes in the beautifully paced novel become no more than mouthpieces and backdrops for Ishiguro’s concern for the human condition: A desire to exceed one’s limitations. We are all obsessed with the upstairs-downstairs world as Downton Abbey has brought to life, but Stevens is, to me, the most capable butler in service. Not only is Stevens loyal to a fault, his former employer, Lord Darlington, however decent, honest, and well-meaning he was, was also playing a dangerous game by allowing himself to be used as a pawn in Hitler’s schemes.
THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov. What good is good without evil? This novel gives you the best answer in the backdrop of Stalin Soviet Union. Despite the atmosphere of terror that deepened all through the years he was working on the novel, the book takes on a surprisingly light tone, one of multifaceted humor, without compromising its philosophical depth. It is Bulgakov’s embittered and sarcastic response (and indictment) to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities.
THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco. This is the one book that hits me by this author. It deals with issues from an age of classics; so in other words, because it’s set in Medieval times, is written in Dark Age vernacular and includes historical details worthily accurate of the respected academe Eco is. It is not just an exciting DaVinci-Code-style historical thriller, but also a densely layered examination of stories about stories about stories, of symbols about symbols about symbols, of the meaning behind meaning behind meaning.
“You grew up in America, after all—exactly what do you know about British aristocracy?”
“Not much beyond the historical, I’m afraid,” Maggie said.
“All right, impromptu quiz—what do you say when you meet the King and Queen?”
Maggie gave David a wry look. Frain had forgotten about royal etiquette lessons. “Hello?”
David smacked himself on the head. “Oh, my dear Eliza Doolittle — we have a long night ahead of us.” (Ch.5, p.52)
This book is Maggie Hope Mystery #2, a sequel to Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. After she has discovered and broken the hidden Nazi code that points to three specific attacks in London, Maggie Hope is no longer Winston Churchill’s secretary at Number Ten. She has proven that her scientific acumen, intelligence, problem-solving skills and ability to handle dangerous situations make her a great asset to the British war effort. The beginning of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy sees Maggie entering MI-5 school for spies. Although her grades are stellar, she doesn’t do well enough on the physical tests to be sent abroad to gather intelligence for the British front.
Maggie shook her head. A decapitated Lady-in-Waiting, rabid corgis, and a man who lives with birds? ‘I thought living in a castle would be interesting, Sir Owens,’ she said, ‘but nothing—absolutely nothing—prepared me for this. . . Maggie went back into the sitting room. She stopped by the bookcase, which was empty. She squinted at it. The dust indicated books had been there for a time and had recently been removed. Now, that’s odd, she thought. Why would someone take Lily’s books? (Ch.9, p.102-3)
Instead MI-5 finds a job for her as math tutor to Princess Elizabeth, a post as an undercover, so she can keep an eye on Elizabeth, fondly known as Lilibet, who, as heir to the throne, may be a Nazi target. Soon she realizes danger is on the prowl on castle grounds when a lady-in-waiting is murdered. Her book, removed from the shelf of her quarter, is proof of connection to another murder at the Claridge’s in London. Castle life quickly proves more dangerous and her assignment, after all, is not cushy but one that involves intrigue, kidnapping, and treason. In this novel, besides the conspiracy that places the entire royal family in peril, Maggie Hope also grapples with the loss of her boyfriend and the possible truth that her father, Edmund Hope, an expert in code and cipher at Bletchley, might have been a German spy.
As Maggie needs to discern who the German agents are that have infiltrated the castle, she races against time to save England and its heir from a most disturbing fate. Although Princess Elizabeth’s Spy is not a historical fiction, more a fictional story set in the past with real characters, the book is very well-researched. The Windsor Castle, with its grandeur and staidness, is a workplace like “living in a museum—and terribly cold in winter” during the war. The King and Queen were strict about rationing, so even the princesses were limited to one egg per week, and the rest of the restrictions the British people lived through. The castle’s dungeons were used a bomb shelter where servants and the Princesses move their beds, changes of clothes, books, kitchen utensil and furniture in to keep calm and carry on. This light mystery gives one a glimpse of what it was like to live in war-time England and the story constantly keeps one on the edge using humor and red herrings.
369 pp. Bantam Books. Paper. [Read/
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Filed under: Books, Contemporary Literature, English literature, Literature, Mystery | Tagged: Books, England, General Fiction, Literature, Mystery, Princess Elizabeth's Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal | 5 Comments »
” Paris seemed to be withdrawing piecemeal from the world. At first it didn’t matter, except that it made the streets look shabby. But then suddenly it did matter. There were certain shops they had come to know and to enjoy using. And they could not leave Harold’s flannel trousers at the cleaners, though it was open this morning, because it would be closed by Monday. The fruit and vegetable store where they had gone everyday, for a melon or lettuce or tomatoes, closed without warning. ” (Ch.16, p.282)
Spontaneous and unpredictable, occasionally encumbering, The Château does not have a clear pot. The narrative is simplicity itself: Harold and Barbara Rhodes are young, well-to-do American couple who decide to take a four-month vacation in post-war Europe in 1948. Although their trips cover England, Germany, and Italy as well, The Château focuses on France, where they stay with Mme Vienot and her family in a château that takes in lodgers to make ends meet.
Feeling tired and bruised by their own series of setbacks, they hurried on up the stairs, conscious that the house was cold and there would not by any hot water to wash in and they would have to spend still another evening trying to understand people who could speak English but preferred to speak French. (Ch.8, p.148)
Most of the actions take place in the château, where they spend two uncomfortable weeks, with meager amenities, rationed commodity, but strict formality. The book relays, in day-to-day, almost excessively, prosaic details of meals, social gatherings, and other happenings in the mansion. They deliberate if they should depart early but only to change their mind upon the next warming on the part of their hostess. Obviously France is far from ready for receiving visitors. Travelers like the Rhodes receive food coupons upon having their passports inspected. They have traveled with four month’s supply of everything from coffee, cigarettes, to cold cream—commodity that would be scarce in post-war Europe. Means of transportation is limited. But they manage to travel extensively and see many sights.
He put himself in her shoes and decided that he would have been relieved for a minute or two, and then he would have begun to worry. He would have been afraid that they would find in Paris what they were looking for—they were tourists, after all—and not come back. (Ch.8, p.140)
So the entire book sees the Americans hitting one site of attraction after another, gradually becoming enmeshed in their host family’s doings. Account of their misunderstanding of the French is shrewd, poignant, and funny. Even in their bliss moments of attachment to France, they are reminded of their foreignness and awkwardness. Lurking in their mind is the question: “Do you think there was something going on that we didn’t know about?” (350) Maxwell captures the feelings of alienation in a traveler. There are social disappointments, the inadvertently offense given and the anxiety about being taken advantage of.
I don’t mind three-hundred pages of culture shock and social solecism (and all the wonderful descriptions of French sights) because Maxwell intersperses his subtle accounts of character with sharp observations about human nature. His writing is also supple and contemplative. But what trumps the whole reading experience is the indulgent, distracting, and clunky epilogue that aims to demystify the French’s “mystery.” Yes, the Rhodes are puzzled and hurt by the French refusal to warmth and charmed when it’s given unexpectedly. But they departed with a much lighter spirit and what transpired to a friendship with the host. The epilogue becomes a poor structure that answers questions not necessarily any answer.
402 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [
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” As the days turned to weeks, everyone in London learned to live with it. The learned to live with the dread an the fear . . . But they could go on. They had to. They all went to work, ate their meals, spoke to one another in the shops, went on as though they were people in one of those classic British plays—always polite, terribly formal, occasionally stiff. It was almost comical sometimes. ” (Ch.13, p.149)
In May 1940, Winston Churchill just became the Prime Minister of England. Unlike his predecessor, Churchill takes on an aggressive disposition on going to war against the Nazis. It is against this historical backdrop—a strange moment in time and a limbo-like state when horror was fast approaching but barbarity had yet to descend—that MacNeal sets her novel. With the Nazis marching across France, Holland, and Belgium and threatening the island, England is also hemmed in by IRA terrorists, who have coordinated bombings in London.
Learning all the sick and twisted details of the war, Maggie was starting to hate, hate with a ferocity she never knew she had within her. Could I kill a Nazi? she thought. Before, she would have said no. Or maybe—but only if she was in a kill-or-be-killed situation. But now she felt she could do it easily, with a song in her heart if it meant getting even. (Ch.7, p.78)
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the story of Maggie Hope, a British citizen who was raised by her aunt, a lesbian academic, in America. She graduated t the top of her class at Wellesley but put off doctorate study in mathematics in order to handle a sale of her late grandmother’s house in London. Possessed all the skills of the fine minds in British intelligence, her gender however only placed her to be a secretary in Churchill’s typist room in the basement of 10 Downing. She is the replacement of a secretary who was murdered, and the truth of that dubious atrocity was in conjunction with the novel’s more intricate, underlying plot later.
Women are slowly but surely making strides—the vote, higher education, laws that protect our money and property. But this treatment of women—middle- and upper-class women—as though we’re children or goddesses or precious objets d’art—well, that’s a kind of slavery. (Ch.10, p.120)
Maggie’s past is revealed in a natural arc as the story takes on different fronts with intricate connection that is not immediately obvious. War-time England comes alive under MacNeal’s pen. Beneath the thin veneer of civility and pleasantries, in spite of the social norms of the ballets, the dancing and the theater, the nation is bracing for the worst. The IRA sees Nazi collaboration as a means for Irish freedom and retaliation. The government is aware of Maggie’s possible motive to take up work with the Prime Minister. The MI-5 has IRA and German spies under surveillance. With the impending political and military chaos, MacNeal never loses sight of her heroine, whose parents perished in a car accident shortly after she was born. As the malicious plots against London begins to unravel, enemy infiltrated, Maggie’s expertise in mathematics, language, and codes has not only proved her talent, it has also saved the life of many and in London. An innocent advert that appeared on the paper didn’t escape her keen eyes and acumen. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is a compelling novel that blends intrigue and espionage as MacNeal skillfully weaves historical facts into fictional plot and the lively dialogue.
374 pp. Bantam. Trade Paper. [Read/
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” She had been used to following the rules since she was a little girl. She always did what she was told. She’s been taught that it was her job as a constitutional monarch always to stick to the program, to follow the Government’s advice, to adhere to the timetable, to act according to precedent. For most of her life she’d done that, and been rewarded for it . . . Playing by these rules, however, had not saved her from the disasters that had befallen the monarchy at the time of the breakup of the Prince and Princess of Wales. ” (Part III, 119)
Mrs Queen Takes the Train imagines The Queen stepping outside of her royal life on a spree to an impromptu visit of the Britannia in Edinburgh. On a rainy December afternoon, feeling bored and disconcerted, provoked by the song My Favorite Things, Her Majesty reflects on some of her happiest memories before they were marred by family troubles and disasters. Also sadly provoked by the recent decommission of the royal train, she toys with the idea of making a solitary trip to see the yacht.
Then Diana had died in Paris and the little boys had been pulled, against The Queen’s will, by public demand, into the midst of media circus. The orgy of public grief was, in The Queen’s eyes, not Britain’s finest hour. If she’d only wept then, perhaps everything would have been all right. But The Queen’s tears were internal. (Part IV, 173)
A visit to the Mews where she feeds her favorite horse, Elizabeth, cheddar offers an opportunity to slip outside Buckingham Palace. With the help of a cheese-shop clerk, she boards an Edinburgh-bound train to fulfill her nostalgia for the lost era embraced by the yacht. Fellow passengers don’t recognize her since she was wearing a hoodie borrowed from the stable girl. Soon the retinue of servants in the royal household has discovered her missing, flummoxed. In pursuit of Her Majesty is a motley group that would never have mingled under ordinary circumstance: a lady-in-waiting left with a small legacy, a seamstress-dresser sworn to never marry, a gay butler whose impeccable service invokes Stevens from The Remains of the Day, a military equerry traumatized by Iraq, and a Britain-born, Eton-educated son from wealthy Indian family who never fit in, and the stable girl. Together the servants keep their eyes on The Queen from a tactful distance, while the equerry strives to keep The Queen’s absence from the palace a secret lest it erupts into a full-blown scandal.
She knew she was struggling with some kind of indefinable grief, but she had been only half conscious of what she was doing up to now. She felt so unhappy that a bit of cheese and a visit to Britannia had seemed like good ideas. She’d not anticipated being at a table discussing a film that troubled her, no matter how sympathetic its portrayal of her had been. (Part V, 245)
Sharing much in common with Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, Mrs Queen Takes the Train applies insight, wit, originality, and a touch of humor to the remarkably restricted universe of The Queen, to whom “life beyond the palace walls was foreign.” (Part V, 273) Kuhn is careful to steer clear of and not claim too much knowledge of her life, but he does present a story that tweaks the pomp of monarchy and reveals, beneath its rigid formality, permeating from Her Majesty down to the servants, the human heart of a woman. It touches on how The Queen internalized her grief about Diana trouble and tragic death. The book also gives an intimate portrait of the complex relationships between The Queen and her staff, illuminating the British class system that is still at work. Most charming of all is how the odd group of servants has sealed into more than a camaraderie under the peculiar circumstance in which The Queen makes an impromptu sidestepping of her routine.
374 pp. Harper. Hardcover. [Read/
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” All stared as the knob turned and the door opened, wider and winder . . . Shuffling together, the passengers began to emerge. The room tipped them out like beetles poured from a shoebox. These seemed so many of them, surely there had only been a dozen or so? Now they were at least twenty-five. ” (Ch.3, p.116)
At a glance The Uninvited Guests appeal is two fold: the setting in an Edwardian house and the scene is Downtown Abbey territory. The estate, called Sterne, somewhere not too far from Manchester, is the home of the Torrington-Swifts, who are, at the beginning of the novel, deep in preparation for a birthday of Emerald, the middle child of the family. The manor has fallen into disrepair and is caked on debt. Jones luxuriates in delineating the details of preparations, affording a mood that is both light and hallucinatory. The story unfolds slowly like a reverie, as if we’re gliding through a dream in an isolated house that generates its own society.
Safely ensconced in her room with Lady, behind her stout, locked door, restored by smelts and grateful for the continued distraction of the demanding survivors, Smudge applied herself to the animal’s portrait with renewed vigour. (Ch.3, p.147)
The light and comic tone quickly peters out and is replaced by a more surreal nuance. What happens next will show how lightly we perch on what feels like solid ground. When the guests arrive for Emerald’s birthday dinner, they bring upsetting news: A dreadful train accident has occurred nearby, and the Great Central Railway has decreed that Sterne must take in the survivors. Soon, to the distracted annoyance of the Torrington-Swifts and their guests, an entourage of third-class passengers, torn and tarnished, emerges into the house and is promptly deposited into the morning room so that the family can get on with its dinner.
She would stand at her open window to cool down, and, after a good scrub with lye soap, she would rub lavender water into her hands to banish traces of silver polish. No one would know she had downgraded herself. (Ch.2, p.80)
The Uninvited Guests is no Downton Abbey, although Jones takes upon sharp class distinctions and snobbery. Keeping appearance is what supersedes everything else—even when it comes to being kind and giving to those in need. Charlotte would make sure she is alone and unobserved before she gets her hand on the house chore—the work of a maid. The maid herself also adopts the high attitude of her mistress, treating the hapless passengers with distaste. As the night works up a storm, physically and metaphorically, more unsavory survivors arrive, demanding sustenance, the family’s youngest child leads a pony upstairs for her charcoaling portrait. In a most unpleasant game the low and lusty past of the lady is unmasked. Amidst all these events, everything that seems permanent becomes uprooted and subverted. Despite the stark change in narrative tone, the twist is obvious to me from early on, leaving not much to expect. Jones writes well and thoughtfully, but I was primarily attracted to the novel for the particular period and plot, not so much the twist. I wish she has pursued more about the cultural and social clash between the host of the house and its recipients. The book is nonetheless an enjoyable read but it doesn’t measure up my expectation.
254 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper. [
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” His students—if they were any mark of his tutelage—were imposing enough, and different as they were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world: they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks—sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat. I envied them, and found them attractive; moreover this strange quality, far from being natural, gave every indication of having been intensely cultivated. ” (Book I, Ch.1, p.30)
There is a hypnotic erudition to The Secret History, a story told by in retrospection by Richard Pipen, a young man who, ashamed of his humble past in rural California, finds at a small Vermont college the life of privilege and intellect he has long coveted. By chance, he becomes part of a closed circle of Greek classics students whom he looks with awe, envy, and an outsider’s detachment. They are under the tutelage of Julian Morrow, a charismatic scholar who guides them through the study of ancient Green culture and its philosophy on beauty. He has a favorite saying that “beauty is terror,” and that one has to “leave the phenomenal world and enter into the subliminal.” To translate this into action, the group, behind Julian’s back, carries out a Dionysian rite at a farm in which a farmer is gorily killed.
And it wasn’t just a question of having kept my mouth shut. I thought, staring with a sick feeling at my blurred reflection in the windowpane. Because they couldn’t have done it without me. Bunny had come to me, and I had delivered him right into Henry’s hands. And I hadn’t even thought twice about it. (Book II, Ch.8, p.458)
Henry, leader of the pack, is cold and calculated. His erudition in Greek studies earns his respect from the other students. He has orchestrates the Bacchae and seamlessly covers the trace of the crime with plausible alibi. Furious that he has been excluded from the plan, Bunny, the oddball of the group who always imposes himself in others’ goodwill, throws tantrum and sublimates his anger toward Henry into his dealings with the rest of the world. His random eruption of hysteria compound his already volatile personality—the primary reason for his exclusion fro the rite in the first place. Fed up with his malicious jokes and insinuations, and fear that he will betray the secret, the group believe in the necessity of murdering Bunny.
The danger which he presented was, after all, not immediate but slow and simmering . . . Benny, unawares, had himself supplied us with such an impetus. I would like to say I was driven to what I did by some overwhelming, tragic motive. (Book I, Ch.5, p.214)
And so The Secret History proceeds with dangerous tension—the first half elucidates the “whydunit,” and the second the horrible mind-purging aftermath. It’s a compelling tale of deception and complicity, examining not so much the moral resonance as the banality of evil. In retrospect the narrator looks in dismay how his passivity and desire to ingratiate pull him into a course of destruction. In the face of these faultlessly orchestrated schemes he becomes willfully blind. Tartt’s prose is supple, decorous, and poetic. Despite the outrageous acts depicted, and the implication that Henry might be Dionysus or the Devil himself, her prose conveys a familiar life of students. As these students inch toward a terrible conclusion, they don’t so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. They are chilling creatures. Therefore, real guilt and suffering do not truly take place within the novel’s realm; neither does redemption.
524 pp. Knopf. Hard Cover. [Read/
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” What haven’t disappeared are rats. They’re everywhere. So here’s what I don’t understand: Old Shanghai, my Shanghai, had plenty of sin on the surface but was shored up by the respectability of banking and mercantile wealth underneath. Now I see the so-called respectability of communism on the surface and decay underneath. ” (Pearl: Dusts and Memories, p.106)
Dreams of Joy is a sequel to Shanghai Girls, after Joy comes to know about the truth about her parenthood. The book is set during a more recent and forbidding era, that of Mao’s ambitious Great Leap Forward, which began in 1958 and mandated the collectivization of Chinese agriculture and led to catastrophic famine in the early 1960s. Although the novel presents these events through the eyes of Joy, both Pearl and Joy take turn in the narrative. Furious that everything she thought she knew about herself was a big fat lie, and that both her mother and aunt were in love with the same man, the artists Z.G. Li, the headstrong 19-year-old flees across the Pacific to find her birth father in Red China.
Except I could never escape the fact that Shanghai was once my other and aunt’s home . . . My mother? She’s tried her best—I know she has—but I came to get away from her. I don’t want to be reminded of the past. (Joy: A Small Radish, p.164)
The story is most unusual, and rather un-heard of: someone who voluntarily goes into exile behind the Bamboo Curtain, during high McCarthyism and Red China, while many strive to go the opposition direction. Like its predecessor, Dreams of Joy constructs a world of political turmoil and extreme personal struggles. Joy is enthusiastic and naïve about Red China and Chairman Mao’s plan to overtake Great Britain and the United States. As much as she embraces this new-found motherland, she is ignorant of this place. Little emotional resonance is attached to her finding Z.G. Li and telling him he’s her father. Following him to the countryside where Li controls the form of his punishment and teaches peasants Mao-sanctioned forms of art, she falls in love for no reason with a country bumpkin who would later purge her publicly. Her blind idealism feels like a plot contrivance more than an organic part of her character. Her narrative far less nuanced than her mother’s. The details about her choices in life at a remote village are unconvincing although the description of the hypocrisy and deceit of the regime is truer than life.
Now I understand how that happened, because there have been no riots, protests, or uprisings here either. We’re too weak, tired, and scared to do these things. We’ve been brainwashed through hunger, and people still believe in Chairman Mao and the Communist Party. (Joy: A Good Mother, p.280)
Dreams of Joy should be more aptly titled Nightmares of Joy, for all the nightmares she had created for her family. Whatever her dreams are, and those of the ambitious government, they are not coming true. While Joy becomes less and less consequential as the novel moves toward its soap operish neat ending, Ms. See gives us a textbook scenario of China under Great Leap Forward, but with more grisly detail: how crushed glass is plowed into earth because it’s a government-recommended nutrient, how fields are overplanted that crops cannot thrive, how people are encouraged to melt all scraps of metal to smelter iron. As for Joy’s coming to her senses, all I can say is, “Duh!”
354 pp. Random House. [
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” It was also in the eighth grade that we finally got a phone at home. I knew the monthly payments pained Ma, but I was too ashamed to be the one omission in the staple school telephone directory everyone received. It seemed to be a public declaration of poverty that came too close to showing everyone the truth about the way we really lived. ” (Ch.8, p.155)
Girl in Translation is the coming-of-age story of 11-year-old Kimberly Chang who emigrates with her mother from Hong Kong to America in what appears to me as the late 1960s. References to rationed water and lack of telephone in Hong Kong give that period away, although panic sentiment about the colony’s handover to China in 1997 had yet to penetrate the public. Recently widowed and laden with debts, Kimberly’s mother hopes for a better life in New York, where she will start afresh and yet the culture is totally incomprehensible. They find themselves in a squalid, dilapidated apartment in Brooklyn lacking heat and real furniture. Like many young immigrants who yet to develop the ear for English (myself included when I arrived 26 years ago) Kimberly finds herself in a tough position adjusting in school and taking over everything that requires any kind of interaction with the world outside of Chinatown.
A shipment needed to go out at the factory the night before my oral exam, so we didn’t go home until past two a.m. I stayed up the rest of the night studying and didn’t sleep at all. Wrapped over many layers of clothing, I wore a robe made of the stuffed animal material, which Ma continued to recycle as I grew. There was only Ma’s sleeping body to give me comfort and the night was damp, filled with the taste of my own fear. (Ch.9, p.187)
Despite her cultural barrier and constant fear, Kimberly realizes the only way to rescue her mother (and herself) from her parsimonious,jealous aunt’s sweatshop where her mother is paid pittance doe long, barebacking labor is to achieve academic success. The struggle from being an underachiever to the star student only seems easy compared to the physical miasma and emotional stress to which staggering poverty subject her. It’s typical Chinese to disguise poverty let alone to accept benevolence. In time, Kimberly learns to translate back and forth between the two worlds that she strives to separate. The private school where white kids from privileged background surround her by day seems worlds away from the claustrophobic Chinatown sweatshop that breaks labor law and pays workers by the piece.
All I wanted was to have a break from the exhausting cycle of my life, to flee from the constant anxiety that haunted me: fear of my teachers, fear at every assignment, fear of Aunt Paula, fear that we’d never escape. (Ch.9, p.184)
Although the writing of Girl in Translation is sophomoric at best, Jean Kwok has found the right voice for her underage narrator who is coerced to mature quickly in order to negotiate the adversity in her face. I disagree with reviewers who call the book lacking in depth and complain that all Kimberly talks about is the horrifying condition of her apartment at the long hours at the factory. For the teenage girl who has no financial resource and has to live hand-to-mouth this is her only reality. In order to disguise her poverty she has to hide from her best friend where she lives. The financial strait means she cannot afford social ambitions. She has been constricted to her daily routine that consists of going to school and working to cover the living costs. It was not until years after their arrival that they visited the Statue of Liberty. The book has some twists at the end although it’s rather rushed. But overall it conveys the harsh reality that faces many immigrants.
293 pp. Riverhead Books. Hardcover. [Read/
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Filed under: American Literature, Books, Contemporary Literature, Literature | Tagged: Asian American Literature, Books, Contemporary Literature, Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok, Literature | 6 Comments »