|Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews|
Gayle Brandeis. The Book of Dead Birds.
Perennial Books. 2004. 238 pp.
(Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction)
* * *
Mary Yukari Waters. The Laws of Evening.
Scribner. 2004. 177 pp.
* * * *
Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie Dobbs.
Penguin Books. 2004. 292 pp.
* * * *
Purely by coincidence, I managed to read three books recently that all focused on the aftereffects of war. None of the titles are advertised as war books, and really they aren't, yet in many ways I think they tell a better war story then most and definitely offer perspectives that are all too often ignored in literature. These are stories about what happens after war, about all the little ways in which it destroys the people who are caught in it, how it takes their families, their homes, their self respect, even their sanity. These are not stories of heroes or enemies but simply the ones who are left. Each is outstanding in its own way, and combined, the three are extraordinarily powerful.
The Book of Dead Birds takes the classic mother/daughter conflict and turns it on its head. The narrator, Ava Sing Lo, is home from college and at loose ends about her future. She joins a volunteer effort to save birds at the Salton Sea in an attempt to find some direction, and also to reverse her years of bad luck with her mother's pet birds. While she struggles to save botulism-infected pelicans, Lo reflects on her complicated relationship with her mother, Helen. The root of this complication is buried in Helen's past, when she was young girl who fell into a life of prostitution servicing African American soldiers at a segregated USAF base in Kunsan, South Korea. It was 1968, and she came from a family of women as all the men were gone, lost in countless wars. Helen became bitter, and her bitterness threatened to fill the child she eventually has, the result of an evening's work at the base. Ava is fleeing this bitterness when she arrives at the Salton Sea. Her search for some sort of happiness, both within herself and with her mother, drives the book's plot to a very satisfying conclusion.
What Dead Birds offers is a look into the life of Korean women who struggled as much under the Americans as they did the Japanese. Their choices were sorely limited by the armies who occupied their country and treated them, in the most intimate of ways, as something far less than human. As the plot is propelled via flashbacks to Helen's life before Ava was born, this treatment is often times quite explicitly recounted. And slowly you realize that as Ava struggles for peace with her mother, their problems are due to wars that are long dead, to armies long gone, to men long absent. There was no victory in Korea for the people who lived there, just a thousand times regret.
Mary Yukari Waters is Japanese, and the short stories that make up her collection The Laws of Evening focus on that country in the years surrounding World War II. These are quiet stories, intensely quiet, where often the plot centers around little more than memory. There is the loss of a child, or of children, the loss of husbands, the loss of home. There is more than anything the loss of everything that made sense, of a way of life that had endured forever and seemed eternal. Do any of us know how we would live if everything we knew, every part of our life and our world, was suddenly and unequivocally changed? This is the place that Waters takes her characters to, the time in history that she revisits. For western readers in particular, who may find it unfamiliar, it is fascinating reading.
The stories all focus on those who did not fight, on the wives and sons and daughters who struggle with the after effects of war but did not meet it on the battlefield. They fought different enemies, saw death and defeat in different ways. I was most impressed by how Waters so effectively created a sense of place in her stories, how she made me feel like I was there, like I could understand what her characters were feeling. And beyond that, I was dazzled by her writing. These stories beg quiet reflection and serious contemplation. And they remind us that the day of victory is really just a moment in the lives of those who are affected by war. They will be living with the conflict for years to come, forever in most cases. It lives in their hearts, in their daily lives, and most interestingly, in the changing society that surrounds them. After the war, Japan was no longer the country it had been, and its people could not remain too tied to that past. But how do you leave behind everything you have ever known, everything that made you the person you are? The answers to these questions and more are delivered with richness and deep thoughtfulness in a grand collection that surprised me more than any recent thriller.
Finally, Maisie Dobbs. Oh how I loved this book! I read it in one night, which is unusual for me, but I couldn't put it down. The thing is, it isn't a thriller. You don't turn the pages desperate to see where the plot will take you next. Although there is a decent mystery here, it is the characters who drove me forward, who made me want to know more about them and the world they inhabited.
Maisie Dobbs is opening her own investigation business in London in 1929 when she is handed a case that takes her back to her own past and the events of the Great War. It causes her to address many of her own demons, particularly those she initially faced as a battlefield nurse in France. What initially seems like a dull case (a straying wife) becomes a great deal more as Maisie investigates further. The mystery is really only secondary in this first book of a projected series, however, as it provides the framework for Maisie's own past to be reconsidered and recalled. She is a truly fascinating character, and Winspear has made sure to surround her with a very well-rounded supporting cast as well. The best part of this book, though (for me anyway), was the impressive way in which Winspear evoked the post war setting. World War I permeates this book, gripping everyone to one degree or another. Winspear has managed to make this all often overlooked part of world history vitally and critically important again. And she created someone that any reader will easily fall in love with. Maisie Dobbs rocks, and I can't wait to read the sequel.