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Monday, February 2, 2015

The Sandcastle Girls; Midnight in Peking; The Andalucian Friend; and The Garden of Evening Mists

Chris Bohjalian.  The Sandcastle Girls.  © 2012   Bohjalian takes us back and forth between two narratives.  In the first which takes place now, Laura Petrosian decides to find out more about her Boston Brahmin grandmother and the Armenian man she met in Aleppo and later married.  The second takes us straight into the horrors of the Armenian genocide.  In 1915 Elizabeth Endicott and her father Silas travel to Aleppo as representatives of The Friends of Armenia.  They are immediately faced with a square full of starving and almost naked women who with almost no food or water have been marched across the desert from their villages and towns at the eastern end of the Black Sea.  There was an excellent review of the book in the Washington Post  -- the url is below.  This is not the first thing I have read about the Armenian Genocide, but Bohjalian, in fictionalizing his main characters, brings it alive in a way that no documentary could.  It’s on a par with the Nazi genocide, and I have never understood how or why the Turks continue to deny it.  January 2013
Paul French. Midnight in Peking, How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of China.  © 2012   When I pulled this off the library shelf, I thought it was a novel.  It reads like a novel but is an account of a real murder in Peking in 1936.  Pamela Werner, a young Englishwoman age 20, was found by the Fox Tower early one morning, murdered and badly mutilated.  It was investigated by Colonel Han of the Peking police and by a British detective sent in from Tientsin.  Time passed, the crime remained unsolved and was consigned to the cold case files.  Pamela’s adoptive father, a retired British consular officer and a lifetime scholar of Chinese affairs and languages, couldn’t accept the Consulate’s decision to close the case.  He spent his own small fortune to hire detectives to continue the investigation and he sent reports of his findings to the Foreign Office.  He did solve the case, but no action was ever taken against the murderers.  A small group led by a British dentist resident in Peking would frequently lure young girls to attend what they thought would be a party and then raped them.  Because the men were pillars of the foreign community the girls knew they would never be believed if they reported what happened .  It worked until they tried this on Pamela.  Along with a good story, the reader gets a lot of description of Beijing back in the 1930s, including its seamier side, the arrogance of consular officials and the ever growing threat of the Japanese military.  January 2015
Alexander Soderberg.  The Andalucian Friend.  © 2012  Sophie Brinkmann, a nurse in a Stockholm hospital, takes care of Hector Guzman while he is in the hospital with a broken leg he got in a hit and run accident.  After he gets out, he invites her to lunch to thank her.  They like each other.  She doesn’t know that one of his businesses is shipping cocaine from Paraguay to Rotterdam and another is blackmailing executives to get advance notice of things that will affect the price of their firms’ stocks.  However, Gunilla Strandberg , who heads a national police investigative unit, does know what Hector is up to and tries to get Sophie to report to her.  She also puts her under surveillance.  Then there’s the German gang that wants to takeover Hector’s cocaine business, and an old friend of Sophie’s, Jens Vall, whose illicit shipment of automatic weapons to some crazy Russian mobsters get stolen by the Germans because they think it’s Hector’s cocaine shipment.  It’s complicated and the only ones who survive are Sophie and her 15 year old son, although he will probably be in a wheelchair for life.  January 2015

Tan Twan Eng.  The Garden of Evening Mists© 2012    As the novel opens, Judge Yun Ling Teoh is reviewing her life experiences.  She is suffering from an aphasia, which may destroy her memory and her ability to speak within a year and is writing things down to try to delay the inevitable.  This is a strange, cruel and beautiful story with many facets touching Japanese, Chinese and Malaysian culture told in three time periods, the 1980s when it opens, WW II when she was interned by the Japanese invaders and the early 1950s when she apprenticed herself to the Japanese Emperor’s former gardener, Nakamura Aritomo, at Yugiri, his garden in the Cameron Highlands.   This was a joy for me to read, because it brought together the two cultures with which I am most familiar and deepened my knowledge of both.  Like everyone else who has at least seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, I was familiar with the brutality of the Japanese on the railroad project in Burma, and I have read many accounts of Japanese prison camps, but I was still unprepared for what was done to the civilian population throughout Malaya.  Judge Yun is the only survivor of the fictional camp where she was interned and where her sister perished after years as a sex slave.  All of the prisoners except Yun were exterminated to conceal the location of the camp, and Yun was released in such a way that she did not know where it was.  Her sister had studied Japanese gardening and had planned to create one in Kuala Lumpur.  Yun apprenticed herself to Aritomo, because she wanted to create a garden in her sister’s memory.  Aritomo not only taught her gardening but also Japanese archery, which is much more than just shooting arrows at a target.  Aritomo was also a famous woodblock print artist and a master of tattooing or harimono.  Yun and Aritiomo always remain master and apprentice, but they also become lovers, and he persuades her to let him tattoo her entire back.  Aritomo also comes to rely on Yun to handle visitors to the garden, including the British High Commissioner.  Along the way we get some recollections from a Kamikaze pilot who survived, and we meet up with the CTs (Communist Terrorists) led by Chin Peng during the “Emergency.”  When it’s all over, we still don’t know if Aritomo was a Japanese agent and a participant in  “Golden Lily,” a Japanese plan to conceal stolen art treasures until they could be quietly recovered after the war.  This was the rationale for exterminating the prisoners.  January 2015

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