Strong, intriguing first-novel material about a young Burmese woman adrift in America--served up, unfortunately, with an...

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THE COFFIN TREE

Strong, intriguing first-novel material about a young Burmese woman adrift in America--served up, unfortunately, with an arbitrarily disjointed structure and (despite much baldly announced psychology) underdeveloped characterization. In the arresting opening section, the unnamed narrator tells briefly of her childhood as the motherless, aunttended daughter of a revolutionary-general (currently in power); she tells of confusing Catholic schooling, of the taunts about her plainness, of her soulmate-ship with older half-brother Shan. And then, when a coup unseats her father's regime, she tells how--with Shan--she is sent off at 20 to safety in America, only to undergo a five-year ordeal: too prideful to live for long off the one family that takes them in (friends of the general-father), they move around in search of work; Shan becomes increasingly physically and mentally ill (wild paranoia); and the narrator, burdened and fearful, is inevitably relieved/guilty when Shan dies at last. Then, however, the novel jumps ahead in time: the narrator is in an asylum after a suicide-attempt--where vignettes involving her fellow patients are alternated with further memories of that Burmese childhood. (We now learn just how cruel and demanding the general-father, ""so good at impersonating God,"" could be--especially to poor Shan, whose mother was a deranged hill woman. We also hear of Shan's fantastical, impossible dreams--symbolized by the coffin tree.) And only after this static asylum section does the narrator go back and fill in the period directly after Shah's death: the quickly following news of her father's death back home; her subsequent, guilt-ridden ""games of suicide""--with the last straw coming from an ugly/funny romantic episode. (""To be rejected by an incontinent seventy-nine-year-old man is not in itself sufficient reason to kill oneself; but when its hour has come, a suicide occurs at the drop of a hat, a flip of the coin. . . ."") The fade-out, then: the narrator leaves the asylum--now able to ""open myself up by small degrees to the oceanic flood of the past,"" seeing the constructive (as well as destructive) side of Shah's dreams, and coming to terms with her father's savagery. (""In time I came to see my father in a truer field of vision than was possible through the warping lens of a child's unrequited and unquenched love."") Too much fiat explication, too little drama, with neither the narrator nor Shan coming to full-blooded life--but there are pieces of unusual, evocative fiction here (in the opening section especially) to be admired and savored.

Pub Date: April 6, 1983

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1983