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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Book Review: "Empress of Asia"

“Empress of Asia” begins with protagonist, Harry Winslow, describing life as “bursts of activity that happen so quickly that we can’t even tell exactly what’s happening.”

In a sense, this story is Harry’s description of his own life’s “bursts of activity”. Beginning in the late 1930’s, Harry’s adult life begins when he leaves home to work on boats. As World War II unfolds, Harry is inadvertently drawn eastward and into the heart of the Japanese war in and around Singapore. It is an exciting couple of years for an otherwise mild-mannered, unambitious man, who is far more motivated by really great jazz than political idealism and freedom from fascism.

Shortly before she dies, at the very beginning of the book, Harry's wife Lily exhorts Harry to travel to Thailand in search of a long lost friend from the war. The book’s story unfolds as Harry recollects these defining wartime years of his life.

Harry is masterfully drawn as a painfully short-sighted Everyman drawn into extraordinary events. Encompassing an approximately seven-year stretch of time from about 1938 to 1945, it is primarily through the self-determination and ambition of others, that Harry goes where he goes and does what he does. Over and over, he is the hapless beneficiary of the ambition, courage, and cleverness of other people.

The concluding section of the book finds the elderly Harry in Thailand following the trail of crumbs Lily left for him to find his old friend. What he untimately discovers rattles everything he thought about his life since the war. Despite his dramatic time in Asia, before and after, because of fear and prejudices, he has lived a limited, shuttered life. Thailand wakes him up.

Had I a few less interruptions by my four kids, I would have gotten through “Empress of Asia” in two days instead of three. I stayed up late and woke up early to get in a few extra pages. Even days after finishing, I still have a palpable sense of the Malay Peninsula during World War II; that lesser known WWII arena of exotic heat, bugs, landscape, and people.

“Empress of Asia” was originally published in Canada in 2006; March 2008 will be its debut in the United States. Schroeder is a Canadian poet of some repute, and as a reader, it is clear to me that he has a poet's ear for the cadence of narrative and dialogue. His story flows indelibly from page to page – it is a hard book to put down and pick up, not because the reading is difficult (it isn’t), but because it is so utterly transporting. Schroeder’s subtextual use of dialogue and foreign dialects is masterful. (Note: Though the book doesn’t contain a glossary, there is a very good one on Schroeder’s website that is worth referencing.) Schoeder’s characters are refreshingly multifaceted – all have an authentic balance of strengths and weaknesses.

Towards the end of the book, Harry discovers bowls of live snakes and turtles for sale in a Thai market, and makes this telling observation about the will to survive: “Of course the snakes just slither around in the bottom but…. the turtles are stacked one on top of the other and in the fifteen seconds that I’m watching one of them drags himself to the top and flips onto the pavement!…. [I]f they’re all going to end up in the soup anyway, why should the [turtles] on the bottom give two shakes if the ones on top have a little more ambition? In the meantime the snakes just lay there wondering which minute is going to be their last, so which bowl would you rather have been in?”

Harry appears to be much more like one of the snakes, waiting passively along through events, but there are numerous ambitious turtles with whom he finds himself entangled and carried along, and, in the end, he survives. The reader is left to wonder, of the snake and turtle, which am I?

I definitely recommend “Empress of Asia”.


At 4:05 PM, Blogger Terri B. said...

Uh-oh. Now I will have to put this book on my list of reads! It sounds very good and I love books that transport you to somewhere else.


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