Falling to Heaven by Jeanne Peterson
|Falling to Heaven by Jeanne Peterson|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Louise Laurie|
|Summary: This novel deals with serious issues involving the whole China-Tibet situation. A fictionalised Western couple play out a gruesome and tortuous period in the 1950s, as guests of Tibet.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: May 2010|
|Publisher: Oneworld Publications|
I knew that I was in for a treat by the first couple of sentences of the prologue which reads Imagine God with feet. With ten toes, toenails, perhaps even a divine bunion or two. Peterson uses those beautifully, imaginative words to describe Tibet. It's a country in turmoil. Its people are gentle. They wear boots with upturned toes so they won't kill insects when they walk. But the majority are also illiterate and rather unworldly. Neighbouring China is becoming a bit of a threat (to put it mildly) as the Chinese people wish to spread Mao's message. The fact that the Tibetans do not really wish to hear it, is neither here nor there.
Emma and Gerald Kittredge are either very brave or very naive. They've made the long journey from America to Tibet. Hardly on the tourist trail and they're not missionaries, so why are they there? This novel is a serious and sweeping narrative trying to answer that very question - and many more.
The four main characters are the Kittredges and a Tibetan couple. Their stories are told in the first person and interweave throughout. Peterson gives the reader lots of detail about this fascinating part of the world. She tells us about, for example, its culture, customs, religion, food. But what makes this all doubly interesting is seeing what a couple of well-educated, middle-class Americans make of it all. They take to it like a duck to water. They even go a step further and embrace their host country with its cold weather, the poverty and the daily hardships. But they are acutely aware that they are 'different.'
The Tibetan monks, or lamas are given many, many pages by Peterson. They are revered by their people. There is a moving piece about a young boy entering a monastery for (what he hopes) will be for the rest of his life. His rocky story is also told here. The novel is interesting on many levels, one of which is the fact that Peterson gives us the clash of three very different cultures: American, Tibetan and Chinese. The latter two mix like oil and water. Peterson cleverly emphasises this point time and time again. The Tibetans, being at one with nature, are given lovely and lilting descriptive lines, as befits their characters. For example, Rinchen's eyes popped wide as a lizard's.
A dramatic event upturns everyone's lives. This tight little group is disbanded. Peterson has worked with survivors of torture and she puts her experience to good use here in this novel. The reader is given stark, blow-by-blow (absolutely no pun intended) accounts of Chinese torture methods. It makes for uncomfortable reading. But, conversely, there is a piece concerning the imprisoned and the prison officials which is so moving, I had to blink back the tears. Strong stuff. And although this is a work of fiction, there may very well be true-life parallels. Or similar. This is a serious work of literary fiction, sensitively presented. Highly recommended.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone.
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