This book is really beautiful and lyrical, in a way I didn't expect. I'm glancing over the back of the book now, and the word "arresting" from a review catches my eye. It's an appropriate assessment, I think. The language is mesmerizing, washes over you. I think it's appropriate that there's an entire section called "Blue", that there is an entire metaphor to be had about the color, that the cover is blue, because the feeling that came across me as I read this book was this feeling of being washed in a deep blue. I don't know what that means, but sometimes I feel and think and sense in colors, and this book was blue - not in the sense of "being sad" but just the hue, if that makes any sense at all.
This book is not an easy read. The content is difficult, makes one squirm. Issues of pedophilia and self-mutilation and suicide are dealt with earnestly, starkly, to a point where it sits uneasily with you. And yet, the story is told with such a compelling voice that you can't help but want to keep reading. I felt urged to go on, not in the way you want to watch a trainwreck, but in the way you want to hear the story of a trainwreck, gory details and all. Fee's story, and his telling of it, never made me feel overly sentimental or grief or anything particularly heartwrenching in a big way. And what I mean by that is that it was never cathartic sort of deep aching that was released with tears. Instead it is subtle, quiet, in the way it affects you. It's so intesnely horrifying that you, like Fee, feel almost detached from it, aware only of an uneasiness that spreads through your stomach. I squirmed a lot reading this book, felt traumatized from the very beginning. But maybe that's what's great about it. You live the trauma. You want that resolution.
The thing about this book is that, well, there is no resolution. Just like kids who live with this kinda thing in real life, there is no easy fix. You get to the end, and it's not that it feels unfulfilling - it's where it should be - but there's no ending with a shiny bow at the end. You take a deep breath and you move on. This is the best there is for now. I'm not sure how I feel about the ending to be honest - I'm still trying to process it and understand it. But it is what it is, and I accept it as the only way it could be.
The other thing I enjoyed about the book, especially in the earlier sections, was its love of music. As a person who, once upon a time, sang in a classical choir, was voice trained, and loves music, I thought the love affair with music and the power one's voice can have, was stunning and accurate, very fresh in paralleling a boy's sadness and insecurity and guilt.
I had a few issues here and there with Chee's choices. For one, I felt that Warden's section in his voice felt too similar to Fee's. There was little differentiation. I mean, I love Chee's voice, but once teenage Warden appears, it becomes apparent to me that this is Chee's voice, not his characters. I was fine with the voice being Fee's - an eccentric boy who has turned into a thoughtful man - but for Warden I wanted something different. It didn't sit well with me that he sounded too mature for his years, even if he has all that history and confusion. It didn't seem right.
Another issue (and forgive me if this offends anyone, as it's not my intention) I had was that it seemed a bit overloaded on the homosexuality in almost every boy that appears. I mean, I understand that Fee's world is surrounded by confused boys who have been molested (or not), but it began to seem strange to me that every boy Fee encountered in his life pretty much was or became gay. Or that even Warden himself would turn out to be gay. It seemed a strange coincidence to me that, especially in Warden's case, asked too much of me. This affinity Warden immediately feels for Fee (and vice versa) asked me to set aside too much. I can buy they end up in the same school, but this recognition of souls immediately? I don't know. It's not that I mind that the book was filled with mostly homosexual boys and men trying to deal with their issues, but it also seemed... easy, for lack of a better word. Too pat.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book quite a bit and I couldn't put it down. It's one of those books that should be enjoyed slowly and yet I found myself speeding through it (though it took me much longer than a book of 200+ pages would normally take me to read), despite its dense pages. At times I went back and reread certain portions of his text to absorb his words. I'm sure I missed a few good ones because I was going through it too fast (as I'm prone to do), but even then, there were so many passages I tabbed because they caught me. So here they are:
Tammamo, I decide, is mightier. For the man she loves lived to die a natural death, and the Greeks always kill the mortals they love, through design or accident. None of these gods would renounce their godhood.
--[pg. 25, Edinburgh]
I see as I watch, her comparison of our voices is a false one: a woman's voice is different, so very different, and hers, ridged by vibrato, cuts like a serrated blade, where we boys stab like swords - our voices tremble not at all. Knowledge, specifically knowledge of passion, makes you shake, apparently. As you answer for it before God, singing for your short, beautiful life to inch forward even by another minute. Even in the agony of loss is passion, is love, and measured against death this sort of pain is a feast, also, and requires a knife to carve it.
--[pg. 53, Edinburgh]
Under his instructions, I am to speak with him when I arrive, after school at four, and when I leave, at six. At no other time, unless, of course, he comes to find me. But these restrictions leave me feeling free inside the silence, which, inside his house, is as thick as the drapes that protect his dark house from the light that would bleach the color from the chairs and yellow all the books. Even in their pristine cases. The relief of nothing to say. I'd always prized silence for being the absence of other noises. In this house I come to see how one can prize silence for being articulate, as well.
--[pg. 81, Edinburgh]
Sex is asking someone to touch you where your skin is thinnest.
--[pg. 110, Edinburgh]
Hate is love on fire, set out to burn like a flare on the side of the road. It says, stop here. Something terrible has happened. Envy is like, the skin you're in burns. And the salve is someone else's skin.
--[pg. 152, Edinburgh]
Blue. Blue because it's the color people turn in the dark. Because it's the color of the sky, of the center of the flame, of a diamond hit by an X ray. Blue is the knife edge of lightning. Blue is the color, a rose grower tells you, that a rose never reaches.
--[pg. 191, Edinburgh]
Metal is like love, it takes its temperature from touch.
--[pg. 202, Edinburgh]
There were a lot of other passages that I thought were great, or observations, or metaphors, or turns of phrases, but I can't exactly go around typing out the whole book... In any case, I think this is a terrific read, if not exactly a heartwarming pick me up. It's a thoughtful book. And it makes me want to meet Alexander Chee, because he seems like a thoughtful kind of person.
Also, something else I wanted to mention (I keep thinking of more things!) - I really appreciated how Fee's being half-Korean in this story wasn't an overarching THEME in his book. Like, it was but only as it related to Fee himself and the main story he was telling. It's so refreshing to see a protagonist who is Asian (or half, rather) because he is and not because this is some Asian American/Hapa identity story. It was woven in effortlessly, and was an integral part of who Fee is as a person and how he views the world and the things he thinks about, but it was never a political issue in it of itself. As an Asian writer who is always trying to avoid becoming Amy Tan, I think that is so freaking AWESOME.
One last thing that just occurred to me as I looked over the cover. The cover shows the word "EDIN" and then "BURGH" typeset slightly below it. Which then made me think about it. And how really clever it is. Edin-burgh = Eden Burrow. Maybe I'm reading too much into it (but given Chee's consistent interest in words and wordplay, I don't think I am), but take that with all the underground tunnels and digging. And the fall from innocence. And the religious singing (Kyrie eleison). What an inherently clever little title that is so freaking perfect it actually floors me. I could never have come up with this. And of course, it gives the whole thing about tunnels that much more weight. Brilliant.
Okay I'm done. I'm off to google Alexander Chee. =D