Fiction from Ethiopia

Been meaning to add this here:

From a blog I follow: semper aliquid novi africam adferre, – a post with A link to an article from The Guardian listing new fiction from Ethiopia.

Two novels and a memoir – all three set in 20th Century Ethiopia from the late 1950s through late 1970s.

I know it’s a stretch to call it “historical” fiction, but so much has changed since these events, what could be better than fiction written by the people who lived through the period?

Also, at the bottom of that Guardian article – you can find links to other non-western Algeria, Sudan, Haiti and China.

Clicking those links will bring you to yet other lists, many of them including historical fiction offerings.

Thoughts on Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

As promised in my comments on Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, I have now completed his The Garden of Evening Mists. How could I resist a story set in a Cameron Highlands tea plantation? As usual, this is not a formal review, just some observations. If, like me, you prefer to know little about a book before diving in, you might do best to leave this post until after you’ve had a go at it yourself. Yes, that is a recommendation – read it – for both story and art. This one is going to stick with me for a long time.

Now to the observations:

Overall, I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists much more than The Gift of Rain. Having read The Gift of Rain, my expectations were more in line with Mr. Eng’s work. I knew what I was getting into so I was more prepared to appreciate it and chose to read it when I was ready for it. The first half of the book is slow going but, in the second half, the layers build towards a complexity which begins to pay off.

Language – Mr. Eng’s use of poetic speech is so dense that it sometimes overwhelms the writing. These are from the first page:

  • He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise..
  • …that rain-scratched morning…
  • Memories…like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance.
  • The murmurings of the house…

Most of Mr. Eng’s figurative language is stunning and seamless. It supports the dream-like atmosphere, the story of muddled memories and the gradual revelations as truth emerges. There is the occasional clunker that feels forced, drawing attention to the language rather than keeping you in the story world. But if you want to see how metaphorical writing is done, how to steep your reader’s entire sensory system into another world, I highly recommend studying Mr. Eng’s work.

Structure – The story is framed in 1st person present tense narration over a two-week period, but the bulk of the book is in 1st person past tense as the narrator reveals prior events in her life. In fact, there are three major time periods in the book: the narrator’s experience during WWII, her experiences after the war as she met and worked with her Japanese gardener/mentor, and the present as she copes with her new circumstances – all the while discovering new information about her past.

The change of tense is helpful to keep the present and past time periods separated, but I still found it challenging to know which period I was in because the locations and characters overlap. I often had to stop and remind myself of what period I was reading in order to keep things straight in my head.

There are stories within stories which add to the mystery but also contribute to the complexity of the text. By the end of the book the story is so layered I had to stop many times and think about what each new piece of information meant to the narrative; how it fit into the larger story. Every bit is important and comes together in the end but I now feel the need to go back to the beginning and at least skim through the book again in order to fully appreciate each part of the puzzle – the way you might want to re-watch a mystery movie to make sense of how each clue plays a part in the whole.

Story – I found The Garden of Evening Mists more palatable than The Gift of Rain on several levels:

  • Personal interest: Japanese gardens, archery, art & tea are much more appealing to me as a context than Japanese martial arts. I also enjoyed the smattering of Malaysian language throughout the text since I have retained at least that much of my Bahasa Indonesia reading skills. Since I know the words, I didn’t need the context or the clarifications provided by Mr. Eng but I doubt anyone would be confused by them. He also scatters some Dutch vocabulary throughout – and I don’t know a word of it but had no problem making sense of them in context. I think this book would be a good example of how non-English words can flavor a text without confusing or irritating the reader.
  • Characters: I still long for a story from the ethnic Malay experience, but this book felt more rooted in the land than The Gift of Rain. However, that book’s main character was half Straits Chinese and half English and, I believe, a large part of his vulnerability to the Japanese mentor was his own rootlessness. I had a difficult time being sympathetic to the main character in The Gift of Rain because I found his manipulative Japanese mentor repulsive. In The Garden of Evening Mists, I found all of the characters interesting and sympathetic even when I was led to conclude they were not all perfectly honorable.

Similarities to The Gift of Rain Both stories revolve around an enigmatic Japanese master of something (martial arts, gardening, art) and their devastating allure to a young, vulnerable Malaya national within the context or fallout of the brutal Japanese invasion of Malaya during WWII. I can’t help but wonder what it is that draws Mr. Eng to elevate Japanese culture to this level of mystique within the hearts of the very people who were so abused by the Japanese atrocities. He seems fixated on the irony that the same culture, same individuals even, could produce such beauty while also committing such horrors on their fellow man.

But maybe that’s the point. What culture is not capable of great beauty and great savagery?

You can see reviews of The Garden of Evening Mist here and here.

Why I don’t write starred reviews here.

Thoughts on Colin Falconer’s Silk Road

Silk Road - Colin Falconer

WARNING: SPOILERS

Modern Sensibilities: One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is balancing the values of the reader with the worldview of characters from a distant time/place. The writer must provide the modern audience with someone to identify with even when the context is wholly other.

Colin Falconer’s Silk Road spans the swath of geography from the Holy Land to Central Asia in 1260 AD. Writing from this distance in time and culture presents a greater than usual challenge to bridge the gap between story context and the reader.

Falconer does this by creating a female character, Khutelun, with the skills, spunk and father’s indulgence to have the freedom to live as a man – allowing for adventures and encouraging her natural leadership. This is believable because we know that Mongol women did have more clout than their western sisters at the time.

Falconer also creates a main character, Josseran Sarrazini, a Templar knight, who begins to question his Christian heritage. And, William, a Dominican friar, who represents every despicable characteristic of religious fanatics. This juxtaposition of an open-minded man who finally casts off all faith and the Evil EthnocentricCleric who never changes, seems crafted to appeal to the modern reader’s freedom of thought and to encourage the gleeful derision of all things terrible about organized religion.

I have two problems:

1) The drastic final action of the Templar doesn’t ring true. Of course, as a believer, I would say this. But I also assert so as an intelligent reader. In 1260 AD, the act of completely turning one’s back on faith, and doing what he finally does, would have been terrifying. (And I won’t even tell you what he finally does as it would be an extreme spoiler.)

Of course, it is the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it felt like a wink at the politically correct modern world.

2) Meanwhile, William, the Despicable Cleric, never learns, never grows. I admit there were moments when Falconer tried hard to humanize him; make us think William might improve, if only a little. Was that an attempt to forestall criticism of caricature? Or provide an honest picture of personal enigma? In the end, this character goes nowhere.

Again, it’s the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it was tiresome. Okay, we get it – Evil Monk. Been Done To Death.

More Nit-Picking:

The book is slow at times if you want all action. But if you are reading Silk Road because of an interest in the region, you’ll enjoy the descriptions even if you find yourself skimming through some of it as I did.

And, the editing is appalling. How did this happen?

On the Other Hand:

Despite my complaints, Colin Falconer has a new fan. He is a wonderful storyteller and I will definitely read more of his work. I crave well researched high adventure stories in places beyond the standard fare. This is the kind of book I love. This is the kind of book I want to write. I will forgive all for more of this. Falconer sweeps you along on roads far beyond the beaten path and immerses you into another world.

The good news is: Colin Falconer has written 40+ books. I will look for others set in times/places that appeal to me. Lot’s to choose from. It will be interesting to compare the story and editing qualities of subsequent reads with my Silk Road experience.

In the meantime, I hope Mr. Falconer will slow down enough to do some serious quality control on the editing. Maybe his production schedule is coming at too great a sacrifice.

Recommended: For action & adventure set in far off lands

Amazon reviews here.

Goodreads Reviews here.

Why I don’t write starred reviews here.