A mix of memoir and fiction attempts to reconstruct a novel that burned—along with the author’s home and family keepsakes—in the terrible Oakland Hills fire of 1991.
“If a woman is to write a Book of Peace, it is given to her to know devastation,” NBA-winner Kingston (Tripmaster Monkey, 1989, etc.) begins in the eloquent first section, an account of the day that fire destroyed The Fourth Book of Peace, her novel-in-progress. It is also the day of her father’s funeral, and as Kingston drives home into the heart of the fire, she has two thoughts: either “the fire is to make us know Iraq” (it takes place during the first Gulf War), or “my father is trying to kill me, to take me with him.” Pursuing memories of her immigrant father in a series of free-associative leaps, she remembers the Chinese lore that he and her still-living, eccentric mother have imparted to her, much of it guidance for dealing with the aftermath of devastation. A few days later, at a conference, Kingston remembers the impetus for her lost novel—to rediscover the vanished Chinese texts of the legendary Three Books of Peace—and resolves to do two things to honor it: reconstruct the text, and initiate a series of writing workshops for Vietnam veterans. The rest rambles somewhat. The reconstructed novel, set during the Vietnam War, tracks a young family fleeing California for Hawaii to avoid the draft and has little plot beyond the characters’ opposition to the war; it feels rushed. The final section—a diaristic account of the workshops for vets—is well-meaning but lacks the splendid insights of Kingston’s best writing.
A colorful meandering that is most original and compelling when it focuses on the author’s hard-won peace with her family.