Half Life by Roopa Farooki

One London morning, Dr. Aruna Ahmed Jones walks away from her life, leaving behind her half-eaten breakfast, loving husband, and promising career. The book she’s currently reading has the line “It’s time to stop fighting, and go home”; somehow, that sentence provides the direction she needs. For Aruna has hitherto managed to distance herself from anything that might matter, abandoning her family and friends in order to grab at a life she believed would be easy. But her new existence has proven unsatisfactory; Aruna, unconvinced she’s deserving of happiness or love, is now addicted to getting high (on drink, cannabis, cigarettes and sex). An abortive suicide attempt later, Aruna is headed to Singapore to meet her oldest friend and former lover, Jazz.

Half Life is narrated in three repeating voices — that of Aruna, Jazz, and Jazz’s father Hassan, whose role in Aruna’s life progressively becomes clearer. Hassan, who was forced to leave his beloved Bangladesh for Malaysia, has fathered a daughter he has never seen, and his memories might be key to resolving their situation. Hassan now lies dying in Kuala Lampur General Hospital, and Jazz, although estranged from his father, decides to visit him for Aruna’s sake.

Aruna is passionately and deeply written, and successfully acquits herself of the charge of self-centeredness often leveled at such protagonists — her demons aren’t standard victim-literature creations but tragedies with a core of real pain. As for Hassan, his story offers an apposite (and poignant) counterpoint to the non-romance of Jazz and Aruna. The three narratives all deal with irreconcilable love affairs, with exile and the meaning of home, and the characters all explore feelings of loneliness, regret, and loss, but there’s a vast difference in the power of each of the stories. A book showcasing alternating viewpoints must needs develop distinct voices for each, and Half Life doesn’t quite pull it off. Although Jazz, Aruna, and Hassan are each granted the same time on centre stage, Jazz’s tale possesses but the titular half life. He’s written like a female character, and often seems indistinguishable from Aruna in thought and tone. Towards the close, Jazz is reduced to little more than Aruna’s (and to a lesser extent, Hassan’s) enabler, allowing them closure so they can move on.

I also felt that while Farooki adeptly chronicled the minutiae of the domestic lives of her characters — petty tiffs between husband and wife that accrete into significance, a nursing mother’s chagrin over the childless Aruna’s competence with babies — she faltered when describing the inner lives of her characters, indulging in over-dramatic prose a shade too often for my comfort. “She would dash herself on him, again and again, like waves foaming against a cliff; she would be both the swimmer and the sea, and in her own marine depths she would try and drown the person she had been, and the reason she had left.” I liked Half Life, I did, but believe it’d have been a much bigger hit with me if only Farooki had restrained herself a tad.

***

Reviewed for the Asian Review of Books. I’ve read nothing but raves for this one on the blogosphere, but as you see, my own experience wasn’t quite as rosy.

Good books for middling days

What do you read when you’re unwell? I mostly read literature featuring dragons and witches and OTT villains and guaranteed happy endings. When a virus laid me low recently, I read an assortment of books aimed at 11-year-olds, two of which were good enough to make me glad I’d been sick. Almost.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart: This one is an old-fashioned children-on-an-adventure narrative, and it’s smashing. Four children possessing extra-ordinary skills (note: not super-powers) save us all from becoming mindless sheep (or are they too late already?) Anyway. Rennie is clever and brave,  Sticky is a bookish genius, Kate is strong and acrobatic, and Constance is contrary–a quality I haven’t appreciated as I ought till I read this book. The four must outwit a super-dastardly villain without further delay.

TMBS works as well as it does because the protagonists’ youth is critical to the plot–these children  aren’t  doing the CIA’s job, but theirs. And they have been chosen for their specific gifts, which makes the set-up a lot more convincing than, say, a Famous Five adventure where the characters rely mostly on Britishness and inquisitiveness to see them through. Also, I particularly liked that Stewart features many PoC characters without making a big deal of it. Sticky is brown-skinned, Rhonda Kazembe (a former child prodigy) is Zambian, and Rennie’s tutor Miss Perumal is from India, but you get the feeling that really, race does not matter in this universe; what’s important is the other race– to stop television turning us all into idiots. You can see why this book appeals to me…

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz: A well-written tale about a young girl’s involvement with Spiritualists in the early twentieth century. Maud, the least well-behaved child at the orphanage, would seem to have the least chances for adoption. But the charming Hyacinthe Hawthorne whisks her away from her miserable existence, plies her with ice-cream and Dickens novels and  new clothes, and convinces her to join the family business–faking spiritual encounters. For Hyacinthe and her two sisters are con artists who have embarked on their most promising  swindle yet–comforting a grieving mother with messages from her drowned daughter, and they need Maud to impersonate the dead girl. Maud must reconcile her desire to be loved by her adoptive family with her conscience, which proves a hardier organ than one might have initially suspected.

Many books of this ilk feature pedestrian prose that bows to King Plot, but Schlitz’s writing is never merely serviceable; she actively crafts her sentences to build up the atmosphere. Despite a somewhat predictable ending, there are many moments of genuine suspense and chills, mostly notably in young Maud’s terrible need to belong, and the consequent pressure to please all-powerful adult authority.  The recommended reading age is  Grade 4 to 8, but I’d place it at the highest end of the spectrum.

Read! Enjoy!

Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

Planning a prequel or sequel to classic works by now-dead authors should bring drops of blood to the writer’s brow. Crafting a plot is fairly easy, but writing in the spirit of the original is virtually impossible. How much ought the new author’s voice inform the piece?  Too much, and the work is no longer faithful to the original creation; too little, and it’s fan fiction. Furthermore, a strong character often becomes a caricature in a sequel, reduced to easily recognized traits and mannerisms, with little further character development.

Before Green Gables was written in 2008 to commemorate the centennial of  a Canadian classic–L.M.Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, featuring the adventures of Anne Shirley, a red-haired orphan girl of unusual spirit and imagination.  Before Green Gables chronicles Anne’s years in Nova Scotia before her departure for Prince Edward Island (and Green Gables).  I couldn’t help but wonder at the chutzpah of a writer who takes on a prequel to one of the most beloved children’s books ever, but now that I’ve read it, I doff my toque to Budge Wilson.  The basic plot outlines have of course been laid out by Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables, but Wilson has immersed herself in Anne-lore and the period, and the result is  an adroitly fashioned, utterly convincing tale. Every sentence spoken by Anne could have been written by Montgomery–there isn’t a single false note in this work.

Before Green Gables begins with Walter and Bertha Shirley’s anticipation of their child’s arrival. Within a tenth of the book, they are dead and the three-month old Anne consigned to the dubious care of the Shirleys’ domestic help, Mrs. Thomas. The household consists of a drunkard father and three (to become seven) children. If Anne’s lot seems unutterably bleak, it soon gets worse–upon the death of Mr. Thomas, Anne is packed off to assist Mrs. Hammond, a mother of six (including two sets of twins), and soon to give birth to yet more twins. This MG book is a stronger argument for birth control than many carefully researched non-fictional works on the topic.

Before Green Gables feels careful-verging-on-unadventurous, but it is satisfyingly done; not one of Anne’s references to her tragical past in AoGG has been missed, from her experience with croup to Lily Jones of the nut-brown hair. If you know the series well, there’s much pleasure gained in playing spot the references. And if  Wilson makes her Anne extraordinarily precocious–walking at eight months,  noting before her third birthday that the name Maurice sounds like a “smooth-running river” , and before her sixth birthday, coaching Mr. Thomas on the secret to finding serenity–I can forgive her the indulgence.

The only real issue I had with  Before Green Gables is its unremitting misery. There isn’t a single funny episode here, nothing to raise the barest chuckle. Anne does find little joys–a good teacher, the accidental gift of a dictionary–but these are valiant victories, pathetic as much in their smallness as in their disproportionate value to Anne. Yes, the context of Anne’s unhappiness in her early years is important to highlight her joy in finally belonging to Green Gables and to Marilla and Mathew. But Montgomery always found pleasure in the ridiculous, even when the scenario was desolate. Look at The Blue Castle, where the heroine, dying of heart disease, decides to cock a snook at convention and start speaking her (decidedly rude) mind to her overbearing family. I’m no Montgomery expert, but I felt that  Wilson didn’t quite capture Montgomery’s philosophy–that in the midst of tragedy and heartbreak, when the big things seem hopelessly wrong, escape lies not just in imagination but also in humor. I like Anne of Nova Scotia, oh I do, but she doesn’t quite have the magic or laughter of Anne of Green Gables.

***

Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

Puffin Canada, 2008

Genre: MG/YA fiction

If you like all things Anne, you may also be interested in my review of L.M.Montgomery’s The Blythes are Quoted, which, for reasons I do not understand, is one of my top posts on this blog.

Between the Assasinations by Aravind Adiga

Aravind Adiga reportedly said about his Booker-winning The White Tiger that “the main reason anyone would want to read this book, or so I hope, is because it entertains them and keeps them hooked to the end. I don’t read anything because I ‘have’ to: I read what I enjoy reading, and I hope my readers will find this book fun, too.”

Well, Adiga’s new book is perhaps the least “fun” read of our century thus far. Did I enjoy this book? No. Did it keep me hooked to the end? Yes, by God!

The book’s title refers to the period between the assassinations of Indira Gandhi (1984) and Rajiv Gandhi (1990). Between The Assassinations  unsparingly indicts an India where healthcare, clean water, sanitation and electricity are luxuries reserved for the rich. Very different from the crowd-pleasing The White Tiger in both tone and form, this book takes the shape of interlinked short stories–each more hellishly raw than its predecessor. The author trains his all-seeing eye on Kittur, an average small town in South India, and the results aren’t pretty. Poverty isn’t a genteel if grim pressure, but a degrading and ultimately dehumanizing state of being. A homeless rickshaw puller finds himself performing his ablutions next to a stray pig. “At once, he thought, God, what am I becoming? … He told himself… There is a difference between man and animal; there is a difference.”

The author’s tragic vision ensures that conventional escape routes aren’t available to the protagonists — caste and class barriers put paid to those taunting hopes. Neither love or religion, nor violence or drugs provide any real respite to the poor of Kittur. And wealth isn’t always the answer: Abbasi, a rich businessman whose workers are going blind embroidering “export quality” shirts, is tortured by remorse but sees no way out. That Abbasi is one of the most likable characters in Between The Assassinations pretty much sums this book up. Some readers may find this work overwrought and irredeemably pessimistic; I felt Adiga’s hold upon the desperate side of humanity was all too real.

This review appears in The Asian Review of Books.

Revisiting an old flame: Mary Stewart

Revisiting a teenage passion is fraught with potential self-hatred. It’s like coming upon old photographs where I’m encrusted with acne and acid-wash denim, with a giant lace butterfly on my skull (thanks a lot, Facebook tags). But I succumbed to the siren’s call, and here is the result: a blog post on Mary Stewart.

Mary Stewart sounds like she belongs somewhere between Henry the VIII and Victoria (yes, a nice safe spread there), but she actually keeps company with Georgette Heyer and T.H. White. I’m not sure if Stewart is better known for her Arthurian novels or as a romance writer, but she is to the romantic suspense novel as Einstein is to relativity, and it is the latter novels I want to talk about in this post. Her first novel Madam, Will You Talk was published in England in 1955, and marked the start of a long and successful career–all her books are still in print today. Truly remarkable for this genre.

When I stumbled upon Madam, Will You Talk at my local library, I was instantly awash in nostalgia. Along with her soul sisters Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie,  Stewart gave me hours of teenage reading bliss–the closest I get to that nowadays is watching Project Runaway cuddled up with a jar of warm Nutella. I immediately checked out MWYT along with four other Stewarts, and I’ve been (re-)reading her work the past couple of weeks.

First off: Stewart has dated really well–MWYT’s story line and its heroine are as likeable and urgent  fifity years after they first appeared. While vacationing in Provence, Charity Selborne befriends a troubled young boy whose father has been (perhaps wrongly) acquitted of murder. Intelligence, along with an obdurate refusal to acknowledge when she’s beaten help Charity set things right. In Stewart’s world, this means the wicked are punished and the innocent protected from further harm. Also notable: Charity’s love for fast cars, and not as a passenger; Stewart’s heroines are all at home in the driver’s seat.

 

[MadamWill.jpg]

(Pic from http://marystewartnovels.blogspot.com/.)

(I usually have a tiny picture on the top left of my posts, but this cover deserves serious eyeballs. )

(Mary Stewart. Source: http://www.hodder.co.uk/authors/author.aspx?AuthorID=1594)

The other four novels I read feature similar quick-witted, resolute, competent  heroines, and follow roughly the same pattern. The primary tension in Stewart’s work lies in the struggle between conscience and love–some honorable scruple prevents the heroine from realising her attraction to the hero, at great personal cost. Stewart’s protagonists have often experienced tragedy (Charity lost her husband in the war, while Linda of Nine Coaches Waiting was brought up in an orphanage), and their familiarity with loss and loneliness makes them place a very high value on  love. Their choice of honor over happiness appears even more remarkable in this light.

It also seems clear to me that Stewart does not care for the naive heroine. Her protagonists  are innocent but not unworldly–many have been sexually active in the past, for instance. They always display a certain maturity when faced with danger; they may get  angry or frightened, but they are unsurprised that the world could be so malignant–we do not once hear the entitled child’s cry of  “why me?” in these stories.  Stewart’s heroines are never passive—they usually tumble into adventure in the course of aiding the vulnerable (a child or a wounded animal are favorite hooks). The trouble they land in is never of their own making, but they are nonetheless eager to help.  They are also resourceful and practical and don’t care too much about their appearance. A Mary Stewart heroine would always have spare batteries in the kitchen drawer and sheets flapping whitely on a line out back, and her hair would never fall in her eyes.

Stewart’s characters also correspond very closely to my (post colonial) conception of a certain type of literary Britishness. Her women are fond of understatement and decorum, they prize courage and hard work and detest (melo)drama, and scorn those who don’t share their predilections. And while her protagonists are all cut from the same serviceable cloth, Stewart styles them uniquely;  each stands distinct even though she is essentially writing about the same character in every novel.

The novels also completely satisfy as thrillers–the mystery is juicy and complex enough to never seem like an excuse for romance. Stewart uses the gradual solution of the puzzle to develop her characters, thus providing legitimate ground for a relationship; much more than shared danger and adrenaline draws the principals together. The novels are entirely character-driven; thus, the protagonists don’t fight shadowy criminal gangs but grapple with villains who are friends or even family members, whose actions are shaped by logic and/or personal enmity. The violence in these books is hence never casual or thrilling, but a brutish and messy betrayal that exacts a terrible moral toll on the perpetrators and their accomplices.

(To be continued. I’ll provide some MS links and resources in that post. And what I didn’t like 😦  about her work )

Update: the second part of my post on Stewart is up here.

Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup

The linchpin of Vikas Swarup’s  Q&A (better known as Slumdog Millionaire) was coincidence — twenty of them, to be exact. The readers, however, were not required to suspend disbelief, for they could share the authorities’ scepticism (about coincidence providing the answers to the protagonist). By making the credibility of the events central to his narrative, Swarup elevated Q&A from thriller to genre-breaker. The novel’s in-your-face ingenuity ensured that the coincidences never dwindled into obvious literary devices.

Six Suspects, Swarup’s much awaited second novel, is again held together by the notion of coincidence. This time around, however, the author expects us to swallow it all with no explanation. But while far less convincing than Q&A, Six Suspects is wildly, shamelessly entertaining. Swarup is the Dan Brown of India, with the advantage of not having to look to history for inspiration; modern-day India, with its gaping social chasms and colorful political landscape, provides ample material to conspiracy theorists.

Vicky Rai, the corrupt son of a corrupt politician, kills a young woman in a fit of rage. Despite the presence of several witnesses during the murder, Vicky is acquitted by the Indian judicial system. When Vicky is shot dead at a party celebrating the verdict, six suspects emerge: a Bollywood actress, a tribal, a petty thief, an American visitor, a bureaucrat and a politician. Each has a motive, each has a gun, and each one’s life is filled with coincidence. The American is named Larry Page (just like the Google guy)! The actress has a doppelganger! The thief is in love with a suspect’s daughter! Each sentence describing these six characters deserves an exclamation!

Sadly, the characters themselves are stereotypes; some more than others. The Bollywood actress is an intellectual; we know this because she quotes Nietzsche (“my Master”) and Sartre in her diary, and mentions Heidegger and Malamud in an interview. More troubling, however, is the intellectually-challenged Texan who works at a Walmart and says things like “Me and Mom are closer than ticks on a hound,” who references the Rose Bowl, Miss Hooters International, and the Starplex Cinema at Waco in his introduction. Swarup is on very thin ice here indeed.

And as for the plot: at times, it seems this frantic tale should be shelved under fantasy –the story lurches about crazily, moving from Kashmir to Chennai to the remote Andaman Islands to New Delhi. But it’s all strangely addictive, and makes for a cracking good read. Questioning Swarup’s style and plot developments while reading is like thinking about kinesiology during sex. Why spoil the fun?

Six Suspects is nothing if not ambitious, seeking to encompass each of modern India’s many issues in four hundred seventy pages. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and endemic institutional corruption all find a mention. Terrorism in Kashmir: check. The Bhopal gas tragedy: check. A shamefully inadequate safety net for the underprivileged: check. A growing economic divide leading to escalating crime: check. Centrist policies disenfranchising those away from the seats of power: check. If I’ve left out any of India’s manifold woes — well, you’ll find them in this novel. After all, Swarup’s combination of feel-good emotion in the midst of grim Indian reality is a proven winner. It should surprise no-one that the film rights to this novel were snapped up long ago.

(A slightly modified version of this review appears in The Asian Review of Books.)

Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley

Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio   by Gary Presley. University of Iowa Press; October 2008)

Buy now from Amazon!Even held to the most rigorous of definitions, Gary Presley’s life has been filled with suffering. A faulty Polio inoculation received in 1959, when he was seventeen, resulted in three months in an iron lung (a machine that enables those with loss of muscle control to breathe). Presley left the iron lung for life in a wheelchair. Every day since then, he has experienced physical pain—and sometimes indignity, when the world proves unaccommodating to the disabled.

Somerset Maugham once said that suffering does not ennoble the character—happiness, he claimed, sometimes does that, but suffering only made men petty and vindictive. The first part of Presley’s memoir  would seem to prove Maugham right. Succumbing to self-pity, Presley fought a “strange silent war” with the reality of his disability, challenging his parents with his intransigence and resentment. Unable to look beyond the unreason of his condition, an embittered Presley asked his father, “Do you think God wants me in this wheelchair?” The response was an honest if unhelpful “How should I know?” The tension between religion and reality, an omnipotent God and hapless subject, is one of the central conflicts in this work, and carried through till the surprising resolution near the book’s conclusion.

Over fifty years, Presley gradually travels the arc from rage to acceptance—a journey that I have come to understand (from reading this book) is by no means inevitable for the disabled. He describes his voyage with a salty humor that leavens an often-harrowing story. The danger in this sort of book, at least for me, is that the weighty (and worthy) subject matter might overwhelm the writing, but Presley the prose stylist has as much to offer as Presley the memoirist. Consider:

I had yet to learn that I had been drafted into an army that throughout most of human history had sustained itself by begging…[] I understood then, and still believe it now, that it takes a certain grace to accept charity, a grace I could not find within me during that period…

Presley states that the aim of his book is to “show that a life disabled is a life worth living.” But this work calls to my mind Socrates’ words—that the unexamined life is not worth living. Presley meticulously analyzes every instance where his actions and attitudes fell short of his own (very high) standards. At times, Seven Wheelchairs almost seems like an act of catharsis:

I found comfort in contriving a fantasy that my simple existence proved I had mined a heroic quality from within; I fancied I had survived through an act of will, and act of bravery. That contradictory delusion—heroic, even though dependent—overlooked the fact that I would wither and die in bed […] if I did not have someone to watch over me.

Stop beating yourself up! I sometimes want to tell Presley. You’ve been through a lot, and you deserve some compassion. Not pity though; no reader would dare pity him, not when his life is filled with such spirit and wry self-awareness. Presley himself shuns the term noble, and I agree with his reasoning: he does not want to be extolled for spending his life in a wheelchair. Rather, all he demands is equal opportunities for the disabled. But in his capacity to find meaning in love and faith and work so his disability is but one facet of his life, in his view of the wheelchair not as constraint but an enabler of independence, in his insistence on his ordinariness, Presley to me is close to noble. Maugham should have remembered that the alchemy of suffering is selective; it takes a certain metal to make gold.

(This review appears in the current edition of Eclectica magazine.)

Poetics of Dissent: The Fourth Canvas by Rana Bose

While reading a thriller, I anticipate — and usually get — a twisty, testosterone-ridden plot. If I’m lucky, there’s a strong female character; really lucky, a good sex scene. What I don’t expect: a theory of socio-political hegemony centered around the idea of dissent. But Rana Bose’s The Fourth Canvas is a novel of ideas as much as a thriller, with enough red herrings to make Agatha Christie proud, and enough progressive ideas to satisfy the most ardent activist.

 Claude Chiragi, a doctoral student at McGill, has just received a birthday present from his girlfriend Clara. To his relief, the large flat package isn’t an Ikea piece in malevolent wait for assembly. Rather, Clara has come up with the goods — a painting by the political philosopher Guillermo Sanchez, who also happens to be the subject of Claude’s research. Sanchez, who died in 1974, was the author of a few articles, and a book on Mexican history — slim pickings for a thesis. The hitherto unknown painting will provide Claude material for his floundering PhD.

The canvas depicts a city landscape full of characters seemingly in fear of an impending calamity. Only one woman seems exempt from the malaise; her face is calm, even eager. Hidden in the painting are the words “Two periods of rise, followed by two periods of decline.”

Apparently, a theory of empire has been painted into the canvas, which seems but one in a series. And if further incentive to explore the canvas’s provenance was needed — the calm-faced woman in the painting seems to be moving. And so Claude and Clara set off on a quest to unearth all of Sanchez’s canvases. First stop: Cuba, where they’ll meet a friend of Sanchez.

In the manner of all good thrillers, the adventure is also a voyage of self-discovery. This being The Fourth Canvas rather than The Fourth Protocol, Claude and Clara don’t realize an unexpected affinity for grenade launchers or a talent for blending into foreign locales. While Claude plunges deep into Sanchez’s intellectual argument, Clara rediscovers her Argentinean roots — her father and brother disappeared during the country’s Dirty War, and Clara had hitherto suppressed these memories in favor of a cool citizen-of-the-world Montrealer persona. As Sanchez’s theory of the role of dissent in the collapse of empires becomes clearer, Claude and Clara are unable to lead their former passive lives. The canvases have changed not just their worldview, but their notions of their own roles in the fight for social justice.

The Fourth Canvas also features several secondary narratives, including that of one Diana McLaren, a professor of political philosophy in Montreal who is Claude’s father’s partner, and another featuring Sanchez’s sister Lydia. Bose gathers these seemingly random threads together by way of an abduction, a misty mountain hop through the Andes, and a case of mistaken identity, through to a satisfyingly dramatic (and devious) denouement.

Rana Bose is an engineer, a magazine editor and playwright, and The Fourth Canvas showcases each one of his métiers. In his acknowledgement, Bose states that his theatre background leads him to “launch torrents of ideas on the stage,” and indeed, The Fourth Canvas at times is all but submerged under expositions on every possible idea or event, from the film Ghost Dog to The Beastie Boys to cricket. Many of these riffs are at best tangentially related to the plot, and often take place on the flimsiest of pretexts; the only reason I forgive the author such self-indulgence is because everything he has to say is so damn interesting. Consider Bose’s description of the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris:

“If a cemetery could, however, be accused of name-dropping in a display of turf arrogance, this would be the place…Chopin has a muse weeping, Oscar Wilde has a winged messenger calling him away…[There] lie the graves of Laura Marx, Karl’s daughter, and Paul Lefargue, who committed suicide together in 1911.”

If this doesn’t send you haring off to Wikipedia, nothing will.

But Bose the novelist is perhaps closest to Bose the editor of the alternative webzine Montreal Serai, a publication whose stated aim is to give a voice to people at the margins. As a character in The Fourth Canvas says “Legitimacy is hogged by the mainstream. [But] the people on the periphery are just as legitimate.” Bose’s novel not only reinforces the importance of dissent, but presents a vision for a new wave of popular resistance that co-opts people from the peripheries of every country on the planet. That he’s chosen to convey his ideas in such an accessible literary genre is altogether fitting. Even thrilling.

 

(This review appears in the current issue of rabble.ca.)

February Flowers by Fan Wu

Seventeen-year-old Chen Ming is a studious, violin-playing first-year student at a university in Guangzhou, fresh off a farm into the big city. Miao Yan is worldly and cynical, an at-ease flaunter of boyfriends, and the oldest undergraduate at the university at twenty-four. An unlikely friendship is struck when the two cross paths.

Ming, whose world has hitherto been defined by the classes she attends and the books she reads, is fascinated by Yan’s insouciant familiarity with all things forbidden (which  in Ming’s case include smoking, drinking alcohol, and dating). In turn, Ming’s intellect, her ability to find contentment in her books, and her stable family background are the stuff of envy for Yan. The two girls are soon drawn into a fervent, consuming relationship, engendered at least in part by the hothouse intimacy that closed institutions often foster. (Ming, sharing a room with three other girls in an all-female dorm, with an eleven o’clock curfew and a warden to monitor incoming phone calls, compares her life to existence in an army barrack.)

California-based Fan Wu’s debut novel February Flowers would seem, at the first glance, to conform to every cliche concerning First Novels. There’s the coming-of-age theme, the first-person narrative (Ming’s), the protagonist whose background mirrors the author’s, the confessional tone etc. etc. But the coincidences are superficial; this novel soon reveals itself as a fresh, original work that strikes a fine balance between intimacy and restraint — and shatters several stereotypes along the way.

As narrated by the adult Ming, her younger self was more than a little in love with Yan. But the seventeen-year-old is too innocent to realize what her feelings might mean. Sex education is all but unknown in the China of the early nineties (the period when the novel is set.) One of Ming’s roommates, for instance, believes frequent masturbation leads to an early death. Upon seeing a picture in a porn magazine of two naked women kissing, another roommate decrees that homosexuals “have a mental illness” and guesses the women are American. Forced to admit (from the photographic evidence before her eyes) that the women are indeed Asian, the roommate decides the women must be Japanese, for the Chinese newspapers have informed her that “only capitalist countries have homosexuals.” Little wonder Ming is confused and nervous about her friendship with Yan.

Too often, in first novels, the author seems to have decided to tell all he has to say, or perish in the attempt. Wu, however, chronicles the evolution of the girls’ relationship with a delicate hand; the reader is subtly made aware of Ming’s gradual awakening (sexual and otherwise), and can only guess, even as Ming does, if there’s a lesbian undertone to the relationship between the girls. The characters’ sexual preferences, however, are but one facet of their multi-dimensional relationship. The author’s control of her subject matter is impressive, capturing perfectly the claustrophobia and obsessive passion that youthful friendships can assume without ever rendering Ming’s concerns as self-absorption.

February Flowers does have a few hiccups, the most glaring being a rushed ending that’s very much at odds with the measured pace of the rest of the tale. But the book’s flaws are easily ignored in the face of its many pleasures, including a vivid, insightful picture of the complications and contradictions of China in the nineties. The novel’s ultimate appeal, however, lies in the universality of its themes — the pain and pleasure of growing up, and the discovery of sex and the accompanying wonder and fear; few will not recall their own adolescent pangs while reading these pages.  

****

This review originally appeared in the Asian Review  of Books a while ago. I’m also entering this one for  Color Online’s Color Me Brown Challenge. Color Online is a great blog that  focuses on women writers of color. They have reviews, quizzes and prizes  and  much more…do check them out.