The cover of the reissue edition of Edinburgh by Mariner Books feature blue and red waves painted in rough brush strokes. It is simple, yet mesmerizing. And, when I finally read the lines below, I caught my breath:
“Not blood spilled, but the essence of blood, the red heat, the transaction of all life. A gas passing from one color to the next, blue to red, even the act of breathing a certain alchemy, sure of itself and its result.”
The main character of Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh (2002), is Aphias “Fee” Zhe, a twelve-year-old boy whose father is of Korean descent and mother, of Scottish descent. Fee has a gifted voice and thus becomes a lead soprano in a boys’ choir in Maine. However, his sexual awakening coincides with his growing awareness of the choir master Big Eric’s victimization of those under his power. This burdens Fee with guilt that follows him through adulthood. Yet, this is not a coming-of-age story of one boy but many, some who do not live on to tell their stories. Fee and those who persist and survive become keepers of those unspoken words. The narrative voice switches halfway through the novel as if Fee is passing on a legacy, which is dark but tinged with possibility of recovery or intergenerational alliance.
Recently, I have read several novels that deal with child molestation that has catastrophic and reverberating effects on all those who are involved such as Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and Lois Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging. This made me contemplate on the jarring contrast created by beautiful prose and controversial content in a work of fiction. As Michael Spinella writes, “if a story about child molestation could ever be beautiful, [Edinburgh] comes very close to that unusual mark.” So, how do we fare as Edinburgh breaks our hearts into little pieces, and later into even tinier pieces? I will not spoil the ending here, but I’ll just say that it left me devastated for a while.
Another element that adds to the lyrical feel of Edinburgh is the recurring image of Lady Tammamo, a fox-spirit created from a blend of East Asian folklore. Chee mixes Japan’s Tamamo no Mae legend with Korea’s legends about Gumiho to create this mysterious figure. He said in an interview, “It was easy for me to imagine [Lady Tammamo] flying through the air and landing on an island off the coast of Korea… She didn’t strike me as the self-destructive type. She struck me as an enormously resourceful character.” Perhaps, it is Fee’s identification with Lady Tammamo, who falls in love with a human, that keeps him from self-destruction and enables him to live on.
Originally posted on AALF: https://asianamlitfans.dreamwidth.org