Bailey's Prize, books, Historical Fiction, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“Miss Burma” by Charmaine Craig

“‘You must understand,’ Saw Lay explained as he and Benny walked one evening in April. ‘The loyalist bond we share with the Brits … what made it stick was our mutual security. Their takeover of the country wasn’t easy. It happened over time, with several wars. We welcomed them because we’d been persecuted by the Burmans for centuries, we’d been their slaves – our villages perpetually attacked, our people perpetually preyed upon, stripped of everything from our clothing to our lives. This is a reason that we are characteristically afraid. Our tendency to be shy, to be modest, to avoid confrontation, to be cautious – all of this comes from our long history of being intimidated. And the Brits, well, they made use of that history. It didn’t hurt that we populated strategic territory. It behooved them to make nice with us, as they say. And, well, it behooved us, too.'”

IMG-0303I’ll fully admit to being woefully ignorant of Burma (now Myanmar) and its complicated history of ethnic conflict and colonization, a fact which made my reading of “Miss Burma” by Charmaine Craig all the more important and enlightening. “Miss Burma” is the story of Benny, a Burmese man of Jewish and Indian descent, and his wife Khin, a striking young woman from among one of Burma’s ethnic minorities, the Karen. Khin and Benny speak no common language; they are both virtually alone in the world and both adrift in a country that is at once home and hostile.

“It wasn’t that this rabbi had spoken to her as a Burman might; anytime a Burman engaged with a Karen, it was with the posture of superiority – intellectual, spiritual, racial. No, this rabbi hadn’t condescended to her, but had treated her as something alien. He was fighting to preserve his people in a country, it so happened, that was ceaselessly obliterating hers. And she saw that much as she wanted to find someplace to take root with Benny, she would never not be a lost Karen. She would never not be wandering in the desert, homeless, unwanted – except by some of her own. Except by equally rootless Benny.”

Beginning in the late 1930s, “Miss Burma” follows this young couple through decades of struggle and conflict. Burma is fighting both global threats of imperialism – Britain, Germany, Japan – and endless internal ethnic conflict, dominated by the asserted supremacy of ethnic Burmans – “to be Burmese – meaning to be one of Burma’s natives – but not to be Burman was, in Burman terms, to be distinctly undesirable.” Benny and Khin, too, in their own ways, fight for a place in their country, for the safety of their people, and for a secure sense of home neither has ever truly known.

Craig’s writing is sometimes spare, often vivid, and always visceral. From the fecund forests through which Khin and her children must flee to the graphic and inhumane torture Benny and others face at the hands of various militant groups, Craig’s writing had me covering my eyes, unable to resist reading between my fingers. Like its main characters, “Miss Burma” is deceptively soft-spoken, a mildness which thinly disguises its strength and unbending will. With its under-celebrated subject matter and its understated tone, “Miss Burma” is an excellent addition to the Women’s Prize Longlist and a strong contender for the 2018 prize.

 

 

 

Bailey's Prize, books, Debut Novel, Historical Fiction, Reading, Women Writers

“See What I Have Done” by Sarah Schmidt

“I watched people pass by, liked the way their voices filled the air, made everything feel whole, and I felt my lips turn a smile as birds jumped over and under tree branches. For a moment I thought of capturing them, placing them in my pigeon aviary in the barn. How lucky they’d be with me to look after them. I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip. I brought my hands to mouth and began drinking, lapping with my tongue. It was soft, delicate. Everything slowed down. I saw a dead pigeon laying gray and still in the yard and my stomach murmured. I looked into the sun. I thought of Father, tried to remember the last words I said to him. I took a pear from the arbor, walked back inside.”

Sarah Schmidt tiptoes through history with the twisted, grizzly, eerily detached tale of IMG-0293Lizzie Borden, that famous New England daughter who (allegedly) gruesomely murdered her father and stepmother in 1892. Through the perspectives of a few key players that fateful day, the reader revisits the crime scene, the investigation (such as it was), an unpacking of possible motive, and an exploration of potential suspects. Though this is an historical novel based on a seminal event, it is truly an exploration of character, particular the slightly deranged, unencumbered by rational thought character of Lizzie herself. The reader sees Lizzie’s rather lame performance during the immediate aftermath of her parents’ murder. Though she states shock and upset, she is deadpan, calm, even cheery.

          “I was lead back to my chair and told to wait. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked. Dr. Bowen slumped into the room. ‘The officer tells me you’re in pain, Lizzie.’
          I nodded. ‘The very worst kind.’
          He looked at me, tired eyes hazed, and I could feel him walk into my body, survey my insides and see all the things I was made of, jolly good things. I smiled. Dr. Bowen burrowed into his medical bag like a scavenger and took out the syringe, filled it with my favor. Into my arm it went. ‘There now, Lizzie. This will make it better for you.'”

Schmidt portrays Lizzie as that character who returns throughout time, one who is pathological, bloodless, and endlessly fascinating.

          “‘Can you tell me anything more about this morning?’
          Everything was lost inside my mind, all the jitter-jitter of the morning cutting away the things that made sense. I wanted Emma.
          Everything became to bright. Voices were pinpricks in the ear. My hands ached from resting under my knees. I pulled them out from underneath me, saw a small cut on one of my fingertips, blood dried around the openings. I put it in my mouth and I shifted in my seat.
          The officer looked at me with little eyes. ‘Now, did your mother …’
          ‘Stepmother,’ I told him.
          The officer held his pen in the air. ‘I thought…’
          ‘Mrs. Borden is Father’s second wife.’ Facts need to be stated. I smiled.

It’s an archetype which, quite honestly, tends to turn me off; I often rail at the book or film that features a character who is diabolical and cold. For some reason – perhaps the historical context of this reimagining – this particular iteration of the archetype worked better for me.

Sarah Schmidt was able to breathe life into an old horror story, to make these characters fascinating, the breadcrumbs fresh. I admire the work and acknowledge its successes, though I am doubtful that it will advance beyond the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist. Perhaps my doubt is all that is needed to guarantee it’s triumph.