My Observations and random thoughts (with added flavour text):
Another day another historical novel (five in a row!) – Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig, longlisted for the National Book Award.
Miss Burma is Craig’s second novel. Her first book The Good Men, which I haven’t read, was published 14 years ago. While that novel dealt with heresies, 14th Century France and the Catholic Inquisition, this book is far more personal and provides a fictional account of Craig’s grandparents, her mother and their life in Burma.
Charmaine Craig’s mother, Louisa Benson Craig, was the first in her country to be crowned as Miss Burma and participate in the Miss Universe contest.
I know next to nothing about Burma (now Myanmar). I could have guessed that, like India, the country had fallen under British rule in the 19th Century and that after World War II it gained independence from the crumbling British Empire (1948). What I had no idea about was the deep division within the country between the dominant ethic group, the Bamar, and other cultural groups like the Shan and the Karen all seeking their own independence. I am now better informed, having read a third of Miss Burma. Craig does an excellent job in revealing the complicated cultural, tribal history of the region made all the more muddier by British colonialism. Because Craig is dealing with her family her focus is on the Karen and their treatment at the hands of the British and Bamar. It’s further complicated that Craig’s grandfather, Benny, was Jewish (to my shame I had no idea there was a Burmese Jewish community). Although Benny gave up his Jewishness the moment he finds success after the War the Burmese nationalist remind him of his identity, remind him that he will always be a Jew. This tussling of identity and culture and nationalistic fervour is a highlight of the novel so far.
The speaker in the following quote is Saw Lay, an old friend of Benny’s, and his point about the language of nationalism is very apropos for right now:
Because of when and where it’s set, Craig is uncompromising in her depiction of the brutality and savageness of war:
But the novel isn’t just a litany of awfulness and violence. While the intensity of these moments isn’t leavened by humour, there’s not much that’s funny during and after WW II in Burma (a tragic state of affairs that remains consistent today), there are quiet moments, points where Benny and Khin, whose relationship has mostly been left in tatters after the war, (infidelity being a major factor) reflect on the marks the war and nationalist fervour has left on themselves and their children. I like this moment in particular:
I’ve really enjoyed reading Miss Burma. The subject matter is difficult, the scars left by British colonialism familiar and yet still horrible and tragic, in particular the simmering ethnic resentments and hatred that has overwhelmed the country after independence. There are two things though that distinguish this novel from books that tread similar ground. First, and as previously mentioned, Charmaine Craig has decided to take a fictional approach to her family’s past. Her decision to ignore the memoir or biography makes for a more intimate reading experience. Yes I did wonder what it must have been like writing graphic scenes of her grandparents having sex or exploring their feelings of betrayal as they both find comfort in the bed of others, but the freedom to explore the fictional thoughts of her grandparents and mother means that they have a complexity and depth that might have been missing if she’d taken the non-fiction route. The second thing is that Louisa Craig – Miss Burma – while she might be the title character is not the novel’s primary focus. We only really see the world from her point of view until the last quarter of the novel. Craig therefore, and astutely, avoids making the book about the Miss Burma contest or the melodrama of her marrying a commander of the Karen National Liberation Army, and rather focuses on the troubled history of Burma told through the turbulent relationship between Khin and Benny. Their love, their hatred, their inability to be together or be apart.
It’s a strong 8/10 from me. As I was with Manhattan Beach I’m surprised this novel didn’t make the National Book Award shortlist.