Saturday 21 March 2015

She Weeps Each Time You’re Born

(March 2015)

This is very good. The obvious point of comparison is Midnight’s Children, in that it’s also a magical realist novel in which a mystical child offers a prism through which to view the inevitably traumatic business of colonial separation and the ensuing intranational turmoil of independence, but in Vietnam and not India and, well… Better.

Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that the Vietnam of the second half of the Twentieth Century is much more firmly embedded in the western imagination (by which of course I mean my imagination) than the India of the same period. Gandhi obviously got its fair share of Oscars, but compared to the massed ranks of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and M.A.S.H. (which we all know wasn’t really about Korea) Hollywood is far more interested in American than British (post-)colonial misadventure – understandably so, perhaps. The upshot is that you have to work much harder to think yourself into Calcutta during the Emergency than Saigon during its fall.

Additionally, while this is Barry’s debut novel she’s previously published a fair bit of poetry, and it shows. The prose is remarkable; infused with an opaque limpidity that is effortlessly breathtaking. A sporting metaphor seems almost insultingly prosaic at this point, but you know how truly world-class players might not appear to be doing anything remarkable, but somehow always seem to have that extra half-yard of space, that extra split-second in which to make decisions and so see things no one else on the field can? The writing in She Weeps Each Time You’re Born is like that: never rushed, never overworked, but capable of wreaking absolute devastation precisely when necessary. A willfully multi-facted experience that nevertheless remains smooth and composed; often flicking between perspectives within not just chapters but paragraphs and even sentences. This is usually a sign of rather crappy writing, but here works to amplify the sense that this is not just the story of one person but her entire country – an object lesson in the difference between bending the rules for specific effect and breaking them because you just don’t know any better. We’ve established that I’m not particularly great with blood, but a passage in which the viewpoint switches between the experiences of a storm tossed boat overfilled with refugees and a recollection of a botched backwoods abortion must count as one of the most nauseating things I’ve ever read. It’s also, somehow, shatteringly beautiful:

       They were nearing the top of a wave, the monster close to fifty feet. At the top there was a cusp between states as the boat shifted momentum. They found themselves waiting for it, that split second of balance, the neither coming nor going, the worst over, the worst yet to come, the blood darker and more plentiful than anything Huyen had ever seen. When would it stop? Qui lay hot as a tick in the light of the fire. They hit the top of the wave.

Born in Saigon, Barry was raised in America, and this is both a deeply personal and deeply political book. Her author insert character frames the story of Rabbit, born at the height of the Vietnam War with the ability to hear the dead, of which Vietnam has accrued more than its fair share in recent generations. Through their stories we travel back through French colonization, and with Rabbit and her accrued family of protectors and ghosts we travel forward to the upheavals and purges of reunification, and, possibly, via the pathways of remembering and forgetting, to a tentative reconciliation. In all honestly, the device of a psychic giving voice to the forgotten isn’t exactly original and in lesser hands it could have come across as trite, but here it’s manipulated with such craft, and so firmly embedded in its location – geographical, cultural, and psychological – that it acts as a vital post-colonial counterweight to imperialist myth-making (cf. Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, M.A.S.H.).

Perhaps more importantly, it also serves to explore extant tension within Vietnam in the present day. Throughout the whole I kept being reminded that Rabbit is only a few years older than I am; while the temporal shifts and jumps within the book can seem a little disorienting, by forcing you to focus on the timeline they also force you to acknowledge that this isn’t all safely historical, but much more immediate than that. While it may not be here it isn’t so far from now, and that alone is slightly terrifying. Moreover, the fantastical elements are here used so deftly as to drive the reality home with more verisimilitude than any ‘uncompromising’ war movie. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born is an important story told with exceptional skill. Highly recommended.

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