THIS IS A HAUNTING first novel about alienation,madness, and death, and some scenes in it are so vivid that one wonders whether this really is a novel, whether these scenes have not been lived through in the author's past, woven into the fabric of her own experience. Wendy Law-Yone, as the jacket tells us, was born in Mandalay, and grew up in Rangoon.
Her novel evokes a childhood in Burma, a magical monsoon country, lush, exotic, and often dangerous. It begins with a grandmother's slow death, watched and almost eavesdropped-on by the narrator, a girl child: "She had a smile on her face. Not a pleasant smile: more a grimace suggesting an unsuccessful prank, as if, according to the old superstition, she had been making a face when the clock struck and froze that idiot expression for all time." The girl is very much alone: motherless, she grows up in a household full of tittering servants, a household run by two maiden aunts and an ineffectual uncle who "spends his days reclining on a couch in one of the sitting rooms, an elbow under his head, a pillow cradling his soft paunch, lost in reverie." Her father is forever away in the mountains on revolutionary business, a distant, angry man, impatient with himself and with everyone around him. Only with Shan, her older half-brother, does the girl feel at ease: Shan is the one who spins stories for her, who teaches her to swim, climb trees, build a fire, and shoot a catapult . . . "arcane and forbidden skills, learned on the sly." He takes her on excursions into the mysterious and sometimes vaguely threatening landscape. But he, 10 years older, "comes from a world too remote for belief," a world of cardsharps and ex-convicts and wild mountain people, and the girl is too young and too troublesome to be included in all his forays.
Then there is a coup. (Coo-coo, the servants call it; and the reader, not knowing anything about Burmese political history, wonders: who is in power? who is taking over?) The girl and Shan are shipped, secretly and almost overnight, to New York. They are thrown into a terrifying new world, cold, mocking, and hostile, a world they don't understand, that makes them suspicious of everyone and everything. Bewildered, marked by their looks, their accents and their wrong assumptions, they bungle their way through a series of jobs, a series of hotel rooms, a series of locales (Florida to Vermont), with Shan going slowly and irrefutably mad. "It was always at night that he seemed to be worst. I would walk into the darkened living room and find him sitting in front of a blank television screen, intensely tuned in to some invisible, inaudible broadcast. It was at night that he paced the floor and kept me awake with the incessant, smacking sound of his fist pounding his thigh as if in answer to some terrible ache in his bones." The unbearable sorrow of the girl, as she wishes for her brother's deliverance in death, and, after he dies, her own suicide attempt. "Appalled by the waste, I began at first to try to catch the flow in my right palm, then to stanch it with a dam of cupped fingers over the seeping wound. . . . But the bright red trickle just kept on moving, ineluctably, until there was nothing to do but wait."
The mental ward chapters are the least convincing in the book. The brilliant promise of the Burmese half of the novel is replaced by a replica of similar chapters in other novels we know: echoes of The Bell Jar, of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,--have we been too saturated with descriptions of group sessions, of characters allegedly unbalanced and, at closer look, saner than we? Or is it because all of sudden, without warning, the girl becomes part of the American scene, no longer the tormented outsider but a well-informed, snappily observing inmate, given to criticizing her attending psychiatrist?
We want her to get well, we want her to learn to function in an alien universe, but not at the cost of giving up her inner landscape. We want to tell her: please, no more of this cool American stuff. We do like your descriptions of your fellow-patients, of Maria, of Jolene, of Helga: Helga especially, gluttonous and bitter about the fact that American women over 50 are treated as non-persons. (How strange this must seem to the girl who grew up in a house where an ancient and powerful grandmother tyrannized everyone!) But, we want to say, you don't make any connection, you don't say anything about the way they make you feel, as if the ward chapters belonged to another book. Please, we want to say, please tell us more about what you are like, more about the two countries that merge to shape you, more about moments like the one when "a sudden hefty gust of wind shook down a cluster of tamarind pods and set the wisteria leaves trembling . . ." Tell us more about the time you went with Shan high up into the mountains to look for the coffin tree. What was it that you never found it? Tell us more.