Sunday, 27 October 2013

Book Club: Golden Parasol, and November's pick

Since this a book club, I assume you've read October's pick, Golden Parasol: a Daughter's Memoir of Burma, by Wendy Law-Yone, so I'm not going to give a plot summary. If you need one see here for details from the publisher, Chatto & Windus. 

Nobody likes pigeon holes or labels, and I thought this book was pleasingly hard to categorise.  Yes, as the sub-title suggests, it's a daughter's memoir of Burma, but it's many other memoirs as well: a woman's memoir of her childhood; a daughter's memoir of her parents; a descendant's memoir of her ancestors; a sibling's memoir of her siblings; a writer's memoir of a newspaper; a meditation on exile; a travelogue; a primer on the history of Burma - which in this book always is called Burma, except in the prologue, where the name Myanmar is acknowledged.  

Burma is not the only nation in this book, the other is The Nation, the English-language newspaper edited by Wendy Law-Yone's brave, swashbuckling father - when he died, prior to the recent changes in Burma / Myanmar, his obituary in the New York Times hailed him as: "the first independent editor of free, post-war Burma, and also, to date, the last."

The Nation loomed large in Wendy Law-Yone's childhood: "The Nation was my nursery primer. It taught me to read, and probably to write. My first sentences were modelled on headlines...years later, when our family was scattered, it struck me as a great shame that nowhere in any of our combined mementoes of Burma was there a single issue of The Nation. I was missing, I felt, some essential proof of identity, as basic as a birth certificate. It would take many more years to recover it."

Is it far fetched to think that Golden Parasol is Wendy Law-Yone's sustained search for proof of her own identity? Or, on the other hand, is the author's search for his or her own identity so obviously the aim of any memoir it's barely worth mentioning it - the equivalent of remarking in a tone suggesting you think you're about to share a great insight, that the point of an advert for tins of beans is to sell tins of beans?   

I don't know.  What do you think?  

Most people who've got in touch seem to have enjoyed the personal aspects of Golden Parasol: "I liked the portrait of the author's mother." Said Claire, from Singapore, "She seems to have been a very strong character, and I thought the final chapter, Mum, was very moving."

I too was moved by the final chapter, where Law-Yone talks of her mother's origins, and also of her mother's death: "The predominant fear of my childhood and much of my adulthood had been a fear of my mother's death. What a relief to see beyond that dread at long last; to imagine, now it had come to pass, the compensations her actual death might bring. Increasingly in her decline she had turned into a fake: imperturbable, unreachable, absent. Surely the death of that impostor would return the mother I knew. Yes, I thought, with a sudden joyless surge of relief, now that she's dead she can come alive again."

I think that passage gives a fair flavour of Law-Yone's style; poetically analytic, her prose is at once both coolly observing, and deeply engaged with its subject matter.  

The only criticisms I've seen of this book concern the political material which both Ree, from Singapore, and also Renu, from Hong Kong, found a little indigestible. "I couldn't keep the Burmese politicians straight". Said Ree. "The sections on the various political factions in Burma were confusing and too long." Said Renu.

I admit that when Law-Yone wrote of her father's political activities, I occasionally felt like I'd stumbled into a Monty Python debate about whether revolutionaries were the Judean People's Front, or the People's Front of Judea, but then I reminded myself of the seriousness of what was at stake in Burma decades back, and also of what is at stake in Myanmar now.  So I told myself if I were getting lost in thickets of unfamiliar names it was my fault: I was being lazy; I ought to pay more attention.

Reading Golden Parasol has left me keen to read Wendy Law-Yone's latest novel, The Road To Wanting. It is not, however, November's book club pick. No, for next month I've chosen A Crowd Of Twisted Things, by Dawn Farnham, published by Monsoon.

In December 1950, the worst riots Singapore had ever seen shut down the town for days, killing 18 people and wounding 173. Racial and religious tension had been simmering for months over the custody battle for wartime waif Maria Hertogh between her Malay-Muslim foster mother and her Dutch-Catholic biological parents.

In May 1950, Eurasian Annie Collins, following this case and filled with hope, returns to Singapore seeking her own lost baby. As the time bomb ticks and Annie unravels the threads of her quest into increasingly dangerous territory, she finds strange recollections intruding, ones that have nothing to do with her own memories of her wartime experiences: disturbing visions and dreams which force her to doubt not just her past life, but her whole idea of who she truly is and even to question the search itself.

Twisted memories, twisted minds, twisted lives, twisted beliefs, the twists of fate and their tangled consequences. A Crowd of Twisted Things is at once a lament for the loss and damage of war, an unravelling mystery and a journey into suppressed memory and the nature of self-delusion.

I'll post discussion of A Crowd Of Twisted Things on Sunday December 1. Please post your comments before then. Happy reading!