Thursday, December 13, 2012

Elsie Sze's "The Heart of the Buddha": Book Review

Marian disappears in Bhutan after reporting to her twin sister, Ruthie, her love for a monk, and her wish to follow him to Tibet. Ruthie in turn goes to Thimphu, the capital, to hunt for Marian and to learn the fate of her sister, her passion, and the monk, Lopen Pema, who shook up three lives. A Hong Kong-born, Toronto-based librarian, Elsie Sze conveys this story steadily.

Sze avoids the New Age rapture or predictable blather that some accounts of this Himalayan kingdom perpetuate. She integrates information into her story to situate Marian and Ruthie within the admittedly challenging scenario they find, and this allows a reader to consider what the two protagonists reflect upon--their Chinese Catholic upbringing, their Canadian identity, and their position in a realm where Buddhism is the state religion, where a benign monarchy and compliant press rule.

Set in late 1998 and early 1999, some changes that have come to Bhutan did not happen yet, and others challenging it are not addressed here.  The background shared by author and her twinned protagonists allows her to explore cultural identity and religious allegiance, and sets up a linguistic advantage used cleverly in the complications which ensue. Some of these for me were underwritten or--given the epistolary nature of how we learn about Marian's predicaments--muffled or distant in their impact. Certain elements click into place in a way that may happen far more in fiction than reality, but this is entertainment, not journalism. However, Sze hints at discontent in a half-Canadian, half-Bhutanese young woman, and this subplot could have been elaborated more to provide a perspective that early sections set up--how do those who cannot reconcile the "happiest place on earth" with their own ambitions, wanderlust, or self-worth fare in Bhutan?

Pema and Tashi, the young girl, represent two natives who find their restlessness drawing them away from their homeland. But forces conspire in the plot (it picks up after a slow start and expected exposition) to keep the momentum and to establish counter-forces, as the monk Pema generates an antagonist who ramps up the energy of the story. It's all handled efficiently and although some of the elaborated plot gets wrapped up in tidy fashion, Sze demonstrates her interest in the terrain, both spiritual and physical, that challenges her characters. Of course, the outsider's gaze dominates, but Sze does try to flesh out some natives to show their side of the scenario, as trekkers and tourists come and go.

An exchange early on shows the perceptions of Marian via Ruthie, filtering often rapturous accounts by Western devotees:
"'I want to write about my time there, something creative and true,' Marian said during one of our last suppers at home before she left. Holding a spoon of soup suspended between her bowl and lips, she looked into the distance with a hunger in her eyes that no food could satiate.

'My Sojourn in the Dragon Kingdom?' I volunteered.

'Or How I Lost My Heart in Bhutan, and Found My Soul,' she said.

"That's so platonic. Hope Bhutan lives up to your expectations.' I heard sarcasm in my voice, and added with redeeming sincerity, 'Will I get to read it?'

'Absolutely,' she said between slurps of soup. 'You may be the only one to read it. I have no intention to publish right now.'" (11)
Novels set in the "land of the thunder dragon" being rare compared to travel narratives and photojournalism, Elsie Sze has chosen an apt setting for her dramatization of promises made out of love as they contend against those out of duty. Reading groups or teachers might select this to spark discussion about the choices the main characters must make. (Betraying my own academic bent, I wish more about the monk's acquisition mid-way into the narrative had been provided: I was curious about the actual items sought.) Although apparently a self-published effort distributed by a small press venture, "The Heart of the Buddha" respectably adds to the short shelf of representations by Westerners of this increasingly romanticized realm, with a dose of reality in how people live there and deal with the opportunities and temptations brought in with foreigners. (Amazon US 11-25-12 without the extended block quotation.)

No comments: