Saturday, January 7, 2012

Anne Donovan's "Buddha Da: A Novel": Review

Three tellers narrate, in dialect (which flows fluidly even for foreigners after a few moments), what happens in their Glaswegian family after Jimmy McKenna starts attending a local Tibetan Buddhist center. He cannot explain it, but the comfort he feels overcomes his awkwardness and what began as a lark turns out to be a fascination with "this incredible feelin of peace come ower me, soft like. So ah just sat."

But, this happened on New Year's of the new millennium: Jimmy'd gone to the temple to avoid the drinking that had led him at his birthday party to make a fool of himself on video, and his discontent with his immaturity and his marriage amidst his career making a living as a housepainter leads him to renounce first meat, then alcohol and, at least for now, sex with his wife.

Donovan sets this Scottish situation of domestic strife and inner searching up nimbly, and the tension moves this deservedly award-winning 2002 novel along swiftly. In a Barcelona Review 2003 interview, she explains how Liz responds to smells and senses; Jimmy to visuals, and Anne-Marie to sounds and hearing, and the chapters do sound similar among the three family members while keeping subtly distinctive tones, word patterns, and attitudes. The book moves quickly and fluidly as Donovan uses the novel of family relationships to explore the appeal of the exotic and the surprising as they enter each protagonist's experience. Jimmy's birthday party, Anne-Marie's concert, a New Year's celebration, and a funeral all set up dramatic showdowns that integrate the shifts in the dynamic, as Liz's power seems to grow as Jimmy steps aside, as the novel continues over a year or so full of challenges.

Liz feels she must deal with raising their daughter, who tells her own reactions to her parents' strife as she works on a tape to enter in a music contest, blending Tibetan chants with the "Salve Regina," and she finds herself soon living with a father who's does not stay at night at home, but in a sleeping bag at the temple. I felt her character needed more elaboration, and given Donovan was a long-time teacher, Anne-Marie's school settings appeared very underdrawn and dull, but that's a minor point in a very solid storyline. Maybe they reflect the girl's reaction towards school but she's meant to be a good student, so her seeming lack of attention to her environment and the comparatively little time devoted in the book to her studies puzzled me.

As Liz reminds him, Jimmy misses Anne-Marie's school concert "tae go and see this wonderful lama who's an enlightened being and is gonnae unlock all the secrets of the universe tae yous special people who sit on yer arses every night wi yer eyes closed while we unenlightened beins dae unimportant things like dae a washin or make a dinner or iron yer claes..."

Meanwhile, Liz finds her own escape. Her decisions create the uncertainty that she and Jimmy must deal with, if not solve, as the novel reaches its satisfying, open-ended conclusion. Liz watches in a doctor's office "the wee pulse of light, like a faraway star," and that symbolizes the possibilities that the author, in the voices of three convincingly related characters, creates to delve into the mysteries beneath the mundane working-class life in Glasgow that she, a native, invigorates with recognizable emotion and sympathetic compassion. (Posted to Amazon US & 3-6-11)

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