The Censor’s Notebook, by Liliana Corobca

It isn’t until nearly the end of Liliana Corobca’s semi-experimental novel, The Censor’s Notebook, that we find out what lead to Filofteia Moldovean becoming (as she calls herself) the best and most perfect censor in Romania. Before Filofteia reveals her past to anyone who might be reading her notebook, we are taken on an extended tour inside the mind of a woman who has trained herself to see every phrase, every allusion, every word, as a potential attack against the Socialist Republic of Romania. It’s curious (but perhaps not surprising) that Filofteia is either unwilling or unable to turn that fierce eye on her own shortcomings. The Censor’s Notebook is painstakingly translated by Monica Cure, even down to Filofteia’s invented words.

The bulk of The Censor’s Notebook takes place over half of 1974 in Bucharest. Before we get to Filofteia’s musings, however, two introductory sections explain how Filofteia’s notebook came to be in the hands of a researcher working on the history of censorship in Romania under communism. These notebooks were supposed to be destroyed when they were turned in by their owners because they represented proof that extensive censorship took place in what was supposed to be a worker’s paradise. No one ever seems to have read them, which is a good thing considering the things Filofteia says and admits to. She would have had a lot of explaining to do to the Securitate, Romania’s version of the KGB.

Because Filofteia is reasonably sure that no one will read her notebook, she feels free to gossip about her co-workers. (Her colleague Roza’s cleavage and its hypnotic powers on men and her crush on a man a bit higher up the food chain appear frequently.) She also fulminates over the terrible novels she has to read. She loathes writers (especially the pretentious ones who speak so abstractly that it’s hard to know what they’re actually saying and the ones who mine the dictionary for obscure words to try and get around the censors). Only once, late in this book, is Filofteia moved to tears by a passage of literature. We also learn about the endless directives that arrive from somewhere in the government that either ban new words and ideas or, more rarely, allow writers to use them in their works. (Apparently, “love” was only allowed in the early 1960s.)

As much as Filofteia complains, we know from her thoughts about her brief transfer to another department (where she is horrified to see the full brunt of highly sexual French novels instead of the sedate, coded Romanian fare she’s used to), there is nowhere she would rather be than in her office in the Literature department of the censorship bureau. She doesn’t trust anyone else to make mistakes but, more importantly, it appears that she wants to stay safely under the radar. All of her energy is devoted to staying right where she is.

After some sections in which Filofteia seems to have some kind of censor’s apotheosis (a section that I admit I skimmed because it was really hard to get through), I finally landed on chapters that revealed why Filofteia is such an ardent censor. For most of the book, I was repelled and fascinated by her philosophy of censorship. I could intellectually understand it. A censor was a necessary job, according to the repressive Ceaușescu regime. What I wrestled with was the way that Filofteia turned it into a calling. She’s a true believer in a practice that I consider abhorrent. In the last chapters of The Censor’s Notebook, we finally see the events in Filofteia’s past that she has sublimated into her drive to erase romantic love and liberty and every little scrap of free expression as dictated by the bureau’s directives. I don’t want to give any of this away except to say that all is satisfactorily explained in the end. I had more sympathy for the creature Filofteia had become, even if I can never excuse her censorial zeal.

It’s ironic that I want to take my own red pen to some sections of The Censor’s Notebook to trim some of the repetitive sections. My desire to take a little off the top echoed Filofteia’s argument that her censorship actually improves the texts that come across her desk. But in my defense, my thoughts about cutting a few pages come purely from a motive to tighten up the storytelling and not to ensure that the words conform to official regulations. And really, my annoyance at some of Filofteia’s maundering about the high art of censorship honestly came from my own struggles to get through the text. I quite enjoyed parts of The Censor’s Notebook, particularly the scenes in which Filofteia slips and shows her human side. So although I have some qualms about recommending this book generally, I think it would be a fascinating read for a reader who doesn’t mind a challenging read that pushes them to think about the purpose of literature and the necessity of free expression (and also one who isn’t afraid to skim with things get too heavy).

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Union Boulevard and the Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, 1986 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore

We like to think that we would be heroes, the kind of people who would save others or stand up for our principles. History and literature are full of examples of folks who become heroes when the opportunity arose. For my part, I’ve always had a soft spot for people who make different decisions because I think these stories are more honest, even if they’re more ignoble. I know enough about myself to realize that I’m no hero. If given the choice between dying to save someone else and living, I’ll probably choose to live. So when I met Rebecca West, the protagonist of A.K. Blakemore’s outstanding novel The Manningtree Witches, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in this regard.

The Manningtree Witches is based on historical events that took place during the English Civil War. It even features real people like the notorious Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Rebecca West and her mother also appear in the historical record. We meet the prickly and peculiar Rebecca on an ordinary day in the town of Manningtree, Essex in 1643. It’s an ordinary day for her. She gets up, grabs a bit, bickers with her mother, and goes to work. She lives a hard life near the bottom of the social pecking order. Shortly after this introduction, Matthew Hopkins arrives and purchases one of the town’s taverns. His quiet but menacing presence makes his real business—seeking out witches—readily apparent. It’s not long before cold, hunger, and misfortune start to bring out the worst in people. Egged on by Hopkins’s talk of witches and demons, folk start to point fingers at Rebecca’s mother and her friends. Rebecca gets swept along with them because it is a lot easier to tar someone with the brush of witchcraft than it is to exonerate them.

Frontispiece from The Discovery of Witches, by Matthew Hopkins, 1647 (Image via Wikicommons)

We follow Rebecca as tensions rise in Manningtree. Through her eyes, we see the mundane spats between West’s mother and the other accused witches that later become the evidence used to convict these women. A sharp word to an annoying child is transformed by the townspeople into a witch’s curse. A fatal illness or a miscarriage are seen as proof that there are agents of the devil walking around. Rebecca is much more rational than Hopkins and the rest of the accusers. She knows that there are reasonable explanations for everything. But, because she is so shy and of such low status, no one listens to her when she manages to get a word out.

Rebecca’s inability to speak up for herself also provides ample room for her to think about the catch-22 she’s in. When Hopkins gives Rebecca a way out—if she lies about her co-accused and confesses to being caught up in witchcraft—she’s faced with a stark choice. On the one hand, is there any honor in telling the truth and being hanged as a witch? On the other, could she live with herself for lying and condemning her mother and her mother’s friends? Rebecca grew up in a Puritan town. Lying is a sin, let alone betraying her mother. But then, committing the sin of a lie might be a small price to pay for one’s life and the chance to get far, far away from Manningtree.

The Manningtree Witches is written in lively and authentically old-fashioned language that made me feel like I was sitting on Rebecca’s shoulder while she worked and pondered and debated. I relished the vocabulary of this book and utterly adored the vivid descriptions of the poor, backward town of Manningtree. The fantastic writing, paired with the rich character development of Rebecca and Hopkins, made this a knockout work of historical fiction. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read about a witch trial. It’s never sentimental but honest and gritty.

Daughters of the New Year, by E.M. Tran

Xuan would be first in line to argue back with Cassius of Julius Caesar, who declared that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Act I, scene III). This survivor of the Vietnam War fervently believes in the Vietnamese zodiac and its authority over everything from the events of the lunar year to everyone’s personality. Every year at Tết, Xuan purchases a new alamanc so that she can find out what is in store for her family. As Daughters of the New Year, by E.M. Tran, opens, Xuan is hurriedly trying to send messages to her three daughters with urgent advice about how they can ward off bad luck for the coming year.

Daughters of the New Year moves backward in time from that frantic early 2015 Tết to show us what really shaped Xuan and her daughters. Where Xuan interprets everything through the lens of everyone’s zodiac signs (she is a Metal Tiger who should never have married a Metal Dragon, because they will always fight, for example), we instead see the long shadow of the Vietnam War in how Xuan hordes food and belongings and how she and her explosive husband relentlessly work to earn as much money as possible against future calamity. Their daughters—Trac, Nghi, and Trieu—however, are thoroughly American. They grew up in New Orleans and don’t understand why their parents don’t act like other parents in their community. They don’t get why their parents don’t buy them the cool new thing so that they can’t fit in. And because neither Xuan nor her husband will talk about their past, the three girls are left bewildered and frustrated. That much parental trauma pushed them all out of the nest, in directions that Xuan and her husband are baffled by in their turn.

After establishing the characters, Daughters of the New Year starts jumping further and further into the past. We see Trac and Nghi as young girls, then Xuan as a young mother and a younger bride, before sending us back to Vietnam. Before the war and right up until the end, Xuan and her single mother were a member of the privileged class. They might not have been rich but they were very comfortable. Xuan’s shining moment—and her moment of greatest disillusion—is when she competes in a beauty pageant to be Miss Saigon in 1973. Xuan’s mother, Quynh, is not a nurturing, motherly figure. Although she provides almost everything Xuan could want, she, too, is also constantly working to earn as much as possible. Briefer jumps take us further back into the family’s past and that of Vietnam.

The Chinese zodiac, the basis for the Vietnamese zodiac (Image via Wikicommons)

It’s hard not to read Daughters of the New Year without bringing out a Western psychoanalytic lens to examine the repeating trauma in the family. None of the characters, except for perhaps the Americanized trio of daughters, seems capable of reflecting on their feelings or behavior. They can recognize the bad things that happened to them—Hurricane Katrina, the fall of Saigon, a rape—but they all barrel ahead with their lives without ever stopping to realize that they are now harming others with their afloofness, lack of empathy, and rigidity. That said, I was fascinated by the use of the Vietnamese zodiac as Xuan’s way of understanding people and conflict around her. It’s funny how, sometimes, someone’s zodiac sign seems to fit their personality perfectly. (I don’t believe in astrology but I am a textbook Virgo a lot of the time.) On the one hand, Xuan is a product of extreme loss and deprivation. On the other, her metal nature is what makes her stubborn, and being a Tiger leads her to be independent, anxious, argumentative, and entrepreneurial. She sees herself as unchangeable and she’s not wrong (not without a lot of therapy). If someone can’t or won’t change, why not just learn the best way to work with a Metal Tiger?

Daughters of the New Year is a fascinating look at a dysfunctional family who are much more likely to claim that the fault is in their stars rather than themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse

Between April 7 and July 15, 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Twa people were murdered by the Hutu majority of Rwanda. The Rwandan Genocide is the kind of event that people who survived it will never fully recover from. It’s the kind of horrific event that forever stains the name and history of a country. In All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse (pitch-perfectly translated by Alison Anderson), we see how the long shadow of the Genocide still smothers Rwandans decades later through the eyes of Blanche and her mother, Immaculata. Mairesse also shows us the stark divides between black and white, speech and silence, healing and long death.

Blanche is well aware of the irony of her name. In France, she goes by Barbra. Even though Blanche is half-French, through her father, she will never been anything other than an African to the French people she lives among. Blanche left her hometown of Butare, in southern Rwanda, near the start of the genocide. Her mother stayed behind and narrowly managed to survive. Immaculata stayed because her son, Bosco, joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front. All three family members manage to physically survive the violence, but all suffer deep, emotional scars that leave them forever changed.

As the narrative switches back and forth between Blanche and Immaculata, we learn more about their lives before and after the genocide and Rwandan Civil War. Before their world ended, Immaculata was torn between her two children. Blanche represents Immaculata’s desire to rise above the limitations placed on her by poverty, by expectations of her gender, and by the lingering racism of colonial rule. For a long time, Immaculata would only speak to her daughter in French and briefly forbid her family from teaching her Kinyarwanda, one of the official languages of Rwanda. Blanche does learn Kinyarwanda eventually, but her mother’s drive to Europeanize her daughter leaves Blanche feeling like a perpetual foreigner in the country where she was born. Immaculata’s other child, Bosco, was fathered by a Tutsi population, a man who was Immaculata’s first love. We don’t learn much about who Bosco is. We only know what happens to him through Immaculata’s reports to Blanche. Unlike Blanche, Bosco is never pushed into anything. Instead, he seems to represent for Immaculata her authentic, Tutsi Rwandan self, or perhaps her self-destructive choices.

What fascinated me most about All Your Children, Scattered was the role that speaking or not-speaking play. After Bosco’s death, Immaculata stops speaking. She goes silent. Meanwhile, Blanche switches between French and Kinyarwanda to try and express everything. She uses both languages to try and teach her own son where she comes from. Yet, for all her words, Blanche fails to reach Immaculata in Immaculata’s profound grief over her lost Bosco. How can words ever express that kind of sorrow? Or the fear that Immaculata felt while she was hiding from Hutu forces that wanted to kill her and everyone like her? I was reminded of all the books, articles, and documentaries that have been created about the Holocaust. There’s an ocean of words out there that can teach us what happened but they all seem to fall short of fully capturing the experience of being hunted and murdered simply because one group of people believes that your group should be exterminated.

And yet, for all that, life does carry on. Immaculata’s family lives in her daughter and her grandson. The fact that we see the characters slowly heal over the years gives this book—which like I said is about one of the most horrific crimes in history—a hardwon sense of hope. Somehow, it is possible to find peace. Somehow, it is possible to find the words to connect with others and the world. I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand all of the choices Mairesse made in this book (I’m frankly baffled by the allegorical story near the end) but I will say that it was a harrowing and beautiful read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Shrines of Gaiety, by Kate Atkinson

I know Dickens isn’t to everyone’s taste. All those characters and all those crisscrossing plots and, yikes, the coincidences! But I love his style and I am a sucker for Dickensian books like Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety. I love the sprawl of these books, how they seem to contain entire worlds. Most of all, I love the fully realized characters in settings that are rich enough to climb into and walk around in. Shrines of Gaiety takes us into London, 1926, and a collision of characters who are plotting with and against each other. This book is absolutely stunning.

Shrines of Gaiety opens with the notorious Nellie Coker walking out the gates of Holloway prison. She’s just served a six-month sentence for a little light law-breaking. Now free, she can return to her half-dozen nightclubs scattered around London and her almost half-dozen children, who’ve been left to tend the empire in her absence. The opening chapters introduce all of those children, plus other characters like the delightfully capable Gwendolen Kelling, the morose Detective Frobisher, and the scrappy Freda Murgatroyd. There’s far too much plot in Shrines of Gaiety to sum up, so I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll say that there are missing girls, crooked cops, revenge, and lots of betrayal.

Even though there’s so much going on in Shrines of Gaiety, it’s the sort of book that carries you along. All of those intersecting plots are presented through the various characters’ eyes, so that you understand everyone’s motivation. Atkinson is particularly good at pacing everything based on how information is revealed. Several of the characters—Kelling and Frobisher in particular—believe that they have the upper hand for a long time, thinking they know more than the people they’re spying on. The reversals of power with each revelation are simply breathtaking.

There are some missteps at the end. They come straight out of Dickens’s playbook of coincidences. After all of the beautiful plotting, several of the loose ends are wrapped up really quickly. I can forgive those, however, because I liked the rest of the book and its characters so much. Gwendolen was an absolute joy to read and I cheered Nellie every step of her sneaky way. (Never underestimate an old lady!) In spite of those missteps, I would still heartily recommend this to fans of immersive historical fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Days Come and Go, by Hemley Boum

Trigger warnings for brief depictions of domestic violence and rape.

Some families seem cursed. Whether you believe that it’s divine retribution or a supernatural haunting or epigenetics, some people just seem doomed to follow the same path as their ancestors. The reason we read about families like the one depicted in Hemley Boum’s Days Come and Go and other literary family sagas, I think, is in the hope that one of the family’s scions will find a way to break the curse. The women of the sprawling Cameroonian family at the heart of Days Come and Go seem to be cursed in love. Three generations in a row, we see women get caught up in relationships at a critical moment in their young lives. The early promises of those relationships—love, belonging, social status, financial security, parenthood—are broken early, leaving Anna, Abi, and Tina to rediscover their solitary selves. Days Come and Go is skillfully translated by Nchanji Njamnsi.

Days Come and Go is told in roughly chronological order, after some present-day sections that help establish the relationships between our three narrators. As far as I can tell, the novel spans from the 1950s to 2015. When we first meet her, Anna, the matriarch, is dying of cancer. Her daughter, Abi, is torn between caring for Anna and dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce. One of Anna’s nurses tells Abi that Anna has been talking about her past, suggesting that Abi listen in. Anna’s revelations take us back to her girlhood in a remote Cameroonian village. She tells us how a missionary smoothed the way for Anna to get a French education: all Anna has to give up is her non-European name and work her fingers to the bone to get it. She slowly loses contact with the woman who raised her and reshapes herself into the good subject that the Europeans want her to be. Around the time Cameroon becomes independent, in 1960, Anna means her husband in a whirlwind of youthful idealism and rebelliousness, only to find herself trapped by pregnancy and in-laws who despise her.

When the novel comes back around to Abi’s story, we find her in the last days of her marriage. Her husband discovers that Abi has been having a long-term affair. The betrayal brings out a frightening, ugly side to Abi’s husband and rips their small family into pieces. Just like with her mother Anna, Abi has to confront the realization that people only really show you who they are when they’re under pressure. It might be the pressure to conform to racial prejudices or the dictates of a mother-in-law or humiliation.

The last narrator’s story is the most harrowing. Tina is not a biological member of Anna’s family but, as an orphan, she was informally adopted into Anna’s household. When her dearest friend becomes religious, Tina is so lonely that she joins the local mosque, too. It’s not until far too late that Tina and her friend realize that they’ve been recruited into Boko Haram. By then, it’s impossible for them to escape with their lives. Thankfully, Anna is able to use her husband’s contacts in the Cameroonian government and military to help Tina escape.

The details in the women’s stories vary but they all share the same rough arc. (There are some hints that Tina might be the one to break the family curse.) They all dive deeply into relationships with people they don’t really know. Anna’s husband had a controlling family and a taste for the kind of finer things that only lots of money can buy. Abi’s husband saw her as a possession; he was shockingly misogynist for a man who professed to be a lovely family man. Tina’s friend nursed a deep sense of rejection that led her to a fundamentalist group of terrorists that later killed her.

What are we to make of these stories? Should we stay away from all-encompassing relationships? Do we have to give up on love and kinship and friendship? In spite of all the heartache and pain the women experience in Days Come and Go, I think that the narrators in this story wouldn’t say that we have to give up any of these relationships. Instead, I think they’d say: keep your eyes open. I think they’d also say: you don’t need another person to make you whole. And I think that, in the end, they would say: we are stronger and more resilient than we realize.

The lake in Parcour vita, Douala, Cameroon. Much of the story takes place in Douala. (Image via Wikicommons)

Witches, by Brenda Lozano

Trigger warning for rape, anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice, and interpersonal violence.

There are so many things we don’t know about ourselves. There are medicines we take for which we don’t know the mechanism of action. There are ailments that we don’t have good treatments for or, sometimes, any treatment at all. Perhaps the most mysterious illnesses of all are the ones that afflict our psyches or, as the protagonist of Brenda Lozano’s affecting novel, The Witches, would say: sickness in our soul or our “deep waters.” Feliciana, modeled in part on real-life curandera María Sabina Magdalena García, has been healing people’s sick souls for decades through veladas, ceremonies involving the use of psychoactive mushrooms. When journalist Zoe comes to interview Feliciana after the murder of Feliciana’s transgender mentor and friend, Paloma, we see how Feliciana works her magic on maladies that no one else would consider curable.

The Witches is thoughtfully translated by Heather Cleary, who also writes a very informative introduction that I recommend to readers who aren’t familiar with curanderos or third-gender people in Mesoamerican cultures.

Feliciana and Paloma are the children of curanderos. Their family knowledge of local flora and fungi give them the ability to heal people with conditions Westerners might diagnose as alcoholism, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the years, attention from Western researchers, doctors, and (mostly) celebrities has turned her into a powerful woman who is viewed with jealousy by many people in her small Mexican village. But whatever ire is directed towards Feliciana pales in comparison to the violence faced by muxe Paloma, who we only meet through Feliciana’s memories about her mentor and friend. Just before the book opens, Paloma is murdered by a man who she accidentally infected with “a disease unborn,” which I think means HIV.

Psilocybe caerulescens, one of several psychoactive mushrooms used in Mesoamerican healing (Image via Wikicommons)

Feliciana tells her story—and Paloma’s story—to Zoe, a journalist who has reached the end of her psychological endurance. Just as Feliciana relates her life story, the curandera asks Zoe about her own life. It isn’t hard to see the parallels between Zoe and Feliciana’s lives: parents with abilities beyond the strictly mundane, sisters with histories of abuse, and pressure to “stay in their place” from society at large. The big difference between the two is that Feliciana has a deep, hopeful faith that everything wrong can be righted whereas Zoe has struggled to function and find happiness in her own life.

While Witches is primarily centered on the women’s lives, it does touch briefly on cultural appropriation, the limits of faith and healing, and the duty to one’s own happiness versus the duty to use one’s knowledge to help the community. I was glad to see these topics addressed because it enriches what is already a fascinating pair of stories. I would definitely recommend this to readers looking for a soul-deep story about hope, healing, and honesty.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Dreadful Splendor, by B.R. Myers

Life is hard for a medium. It’s even harder when the medium’s landlady is blackmailing said medium in order to get her to steal from her wealthy clients. Although Genevieve Timmons is a natural at cold-reading and getting clients to believe that she can communicate with the dead, she is not at all talented in theft. In the opening pages of B.R. Myers’s delightful A Dreadful Splendor, Genevieve is caught red-handed and thrown in a London jail. The only way out comes in the form of a curious offer from an elderly lawyer. He can get her out, he says, but only if she can use her mediumistic skills to help his employer get over the grief of losing a fiancee.

It’s a lot to take in but Myers barely gives us or Genevieve a chance to catch our breaths before whisking us away to an estate in northern England that could almost challenge Manderley, Thrushcross Grange, or Thornfield Hall for moody dampness. (If you recognize those place names, you’ll probably also pick up on hints of Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre scattered around A Dreadful Splendor. Thankfully, those references and vibes are merely seasonings in this entertaining and original story.) Genevieve meets the master of the house under inauspicious circumstances on her very first night at Somerset Park and is dragooned into yet another plot. Gareth Pemberton still wants Genevieve to hold a seance but, this time, he wants her to use her cold-reading skills to get his fiancee’s killer to confess.

Genevieve is a wonderful amateur detective. Normally I get annoyed at these kinds of characters because they’re often written to be instant experts at forensics or interrogation or something; I don’t find it believable when a chef or a bookstore owner suddenly becomes a master detective. Genevieve I can believe. She was brought up to notice things and use her observations to manipulate her target’s emotions. She’s also learned to hide what she can do under the cover of the supernatural—which turns out to be very effective against the superstitious or those with guilty consciences. Because Genevieve is under orders from both her lawyer-rescuer, Mr. Lockhart, and Pemberton, she has to dance as fast as she can to keep her secrets.

The pace set in the first chapters never slackens. In fact, the twists start coming hard and heavy after Genevieve is pushed into detective duty. And there are definite signs that nefarious things are afoot at Somerset Park, from the hints about the terrifying family history to the voices in the walls to the creepy housekeeper. A Dreadful Splendor isn’t all mystery and horror, however. Genevieve and Mr. Pemberton start to spark almost immediately. Watching these two verbally spar with each other was as much fun as trying to figure out what on earth is going on at Somerset Park and what really happened to the lamented fiancee. This book was an absolute pleasure to read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, by Tsering Yangzom Lama

There are (at least) two different histories of the land we know as Tibet, depending on who you ask. The official People’s Republic of China version calls its actions a “liberation” or an “annexation” of Tibet. If you ask Tibetans, China invaded and occupied their country. In 1959, after an attempt to get the Chinese Army out of Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama, his government, and thousands of Tibetans fled their mountains to India, Nepal, and other countries. Tsering Yangzom Lama’s novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, follows a family of refugees from their mountain village to Nepal and Canada, from 1960 to the early 2010s. Through the eyes of Lhamo, Tenkyi, Dolma, and others, we see the effects of exile, loss, disappointment, and misunderstanding. This book is a welter of emotion that, among other things, serves as a reminder that the Tibet many once called home may never be reclaimed.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies follows a roughly chronological structure, with some jumping around the generations. The book opens in 1960, with Lhamo. Lhamo is the daughter of a shaman. She and her father mind the house and keep people fed and clothed while Lhamo’s mother consults gods and spirits for any visitor who needs answers to their questions. Lhamo is the kind of dependable person who, from a Western perspective, might be seen as a doormat. She is always taking care of others, especially her younger sister, Tenkyi. We learn about her dreams and longings as we spend time with her. She wants better than a life of very hard work but always puts other ahead of herself. Tenkyi, who we meet later in the novel, travels further than her sister. Her intelligence is recognized early and the teacher in their Nepali refugee camp helps raise funds to send Tenkyi to college in Dehli. Dolma, Lhamo’s daughter, perhaps travels the furthest. She and Tenkyi manage to get visas to Canada, where Dolma goes to graduate school. Dolma’s distance isn’t just geographical. Unlike Tenkyi and Lhamo, Dolma never lived in Tibet. She was never fully immersed in the culture and beliefs. The closest she can come to knowing her heritage culture is to study it with Western anthropologists on another continent.

As we sojourn with the women through the decades and the miles, we watch them try to make a life for themselves out of their displacement. None of them can know what might have happened if Lhamo and Tenkyi’s parents hadn’t chosen to flee. (Their mother was under suspicion for her role as a religious leader and healer.) When those parents tragically die, the girls are even more adrift. It seems like Lhamo, Tenkyi, and Dolma constantly revisit the question of what might have been as they grow older. What might have happened if Lhamo had been able to find love? What might have happened if Tenkyi had been with the security of a family? And what might Dolma have been able to become if she’d grown up fully living her culture, instead of learning about it secondhand?

Under the heartbreaking plot and character studies, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is the richest depiction of Tibetan life and culture that I’ve ever encountered in fiction. I was engrossed in the narrative but what really grabbed me were the details about Tibet’s shamanic traditions, the food Tibetans were able to create in their sparse homeland, and a way of life ruled by the tenets of Gelug Buddhism. I spent a lot of time bouncing around online and in Wikipedia looking at pictures of Tibet and its people, while trying to get up to speed on the political history. I wanted to see what I was reading about. The Wikipedia dive isn’t necessary to understand this book and, actually, I recommend saving the research for after you’ve read the book. Without prior knowledge of the historical context, readers of We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies—which I think is a reference to pilgrim’s prostrations—might be able to feel some of the bewilderment of an uprooted people, who have unreliable access to trustworthy information, living in long-term exile.

If you enjoy family sagas or books set in locations far away from any place you’ve ever been, I would definitely recommend We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Drigung Monastery, eastern Tibet, 2009 (Image by Antoine Teveneaux and hosted on Wikicommons)

A Map for the Missing, by Belinda Huijuan Tang

When he gets the call that his father is missing, Yitian hasn’t been back to his home village in Anhui, China for more than a decade. I don’t he’d be able to explain why he leaves his wife and his job at an unnamed American university to get on a plane and go help find the man. Over the course of A Map for the Missing, by Belinda Huijuan Tang, we learn what would compel Yitian to travel back to the place that holds his worst memories. We also learn about the forces and chances that can derail us from our chosen paths in life.

Years before he became an assistant professor at an American university, Yitian was the son of poor, rural farmers. He’s not a strong worker and, instead of going to the fields, Yitian would rather listen to his grandfather’s stories about the history of China. His hard-bitten father loathes Yitian for his preferences. And Yitian’s life might have gone on like that—hard labor, abusive home life, no future—if it weren’t for the announcement that the gaokao would finally be held again. These national college entrance exams had been suspended since the Cultural Revolution. If Yitian can score well enough on the gaokao, he can go to university and escape the Tang Family Villages. And if his friend, Hanwen, a sent-down teenager from Shanghai, can score well enough, perhaps she can leave the villages, too, and return to her mother.

Hongcun, a traditional village in Anhui (Image via Wikicommons)

A Map for the Missing bounced back and forth between 1993—when Yitian returns to China to help look for his father—and the late 1970s and early 1980s—when Yitian is still a teenager dreaming of becoming a scholar. As the narrative shifts in time, we see that life is never a straight line. Yitian has pinballed through his entire life, responding to the actions of others and being bounced off of his previous trajectory. For example, he ended up in America because the head of his department at university in Beijing recommended him. He married his wife because she initiated contact. He passed the gaokao because Hanwen badgered him into studying. Yitian hardly has to make choices at all. And, if you look closely, you can see how other characters similarly pinball through their lives in response to someone else pushing them off course.

A missing father is just a catalyst in A Map for the Missing. The real story, I think, is about the loneliness people can feel when they believe that no one else really understands them. No one in this story shares their stories with each other. When a character learns about another’s past—and, hence, why they are the way they are—it’s a revelation. My impression of most of the characters in A Map for the Missing is that they are all presenting one version of themselves to the world while keeping their thoughts and emotions private. None of them can make themselves vulnerable enough to talk about the things that really matter. And so, as they all ricochet around each other, opportunities for happiness and love and understanding appear and vanish and reappear. This is an emotionally complex novel. I’d recommend it to readers who like deep psychological portraits in interesting settings.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.