My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I finished this slender book last weekend after having met the author at the San Miguel Writers Conference. Through a series of brilliantly political, interconnected short stories, the novel is a tragic epitaph for a fictional Southeast Asian island nation that Westernized during Kennedy’s presidency, and through a strangling forty-year relationship with the US, found itself on the wrong end of the military-industrial complex.
The novel’s final moments represent the very worst of cynical American foreign policy, perhaps to a degree that betrays the writer’s political bias. My own sympathy for some of these views aside, the fictive dream wavers in a critical moment. It’s the only heavyhanded portion of the book, committing what Virginia Woolf once criticized in Emily Bronte’s writing–the error of putting one’s own convictions on the page so strongly that the story must step aside for a moment.
Yet the book is lyrical, beautiful, and sharply researched and imagined. Vida Hamburg has a journalism background, and her exactitude and broad knowledge combine with a cast of well-drawn characters. The characters are secondary to the social and political life of Chomumbhar during its relationship with the US, yet even the reader who shies from politics will enjoy the novel’s foreign flavor.