A Delicate and Compassionate Portrait of Faith, A Marriage and China
Bo Caldwell is a slow writer – and a good one. Her first book, set it Shanghai during the second world war, and dealing with that event through the eyes of a small girl, with a focus on her relationship with her father, The Distant Land Of My Father was, in this reader’s opinion, an exceptional first novel. I found it as powerful and noteworthy as J.G. Ballard’s book from a similar perspective, but from a young boy’s viewpoint. Empire of the Sun (The Perennial Collection)
What surprised me enormously with Caldwell’s first book, which seemed authentically autobiographical, was that she was not born in China, and was not in fact even a glimmer in her parents’ eyes till well after the period in question. This was novel, and not autobiography, or even biography at all, but she had drawn on family recollections to create it. She is the grand-daughter of missionaries who were working in China from the early 1900s till the early 60s, and bedded themselves into feeling far more Chinese than American, fed by a great love of China and its people.
In some ways, the small girl in that first book took some of Bo Caldwell’s mother’s childhood memories into her creation
In this second book, she again uses some of her maternal family history, as she focuses on the naive, innocent, yet incredibly idealistic, dedicated and committed young man and woman who arrive as part of the Mennonite missionary community, in the early part of the twentieth century. Although Katherine (partially trained nurse) and Will Kiehn are not her grandparents, as she is at pains to point out, she does use their experiences in the building of a detailed picture of time, place, culture and more.
Part of the delicately explored territory is faith itself, how it is tested, battered, and exists encompassing doubt – not in SPITE of doubt, but with doubt as an important part of the fabric of faith. There is also the very understanding portrayal of what a marriage might mean, between two people with a great sense of duty towards their work, and their relationship as part of that work. Inevitably, relationships will also mean great pain and loss along the way, as separation will always come, whether through the failure of relationship or through death itself.
The book is written in two separate though complementary voices – Will Kiehn’s thought and accounts, told in recollected tranquillity, looking back over 60 years, set against the pages of Katherine’s journal.
What is noteworthy is the compassionate humanity that informs Caldwell’s writing, the sense of human nature not being fixed, of complex individuals who struggle to be as best as they can. There is an observation of the wrongness of brutality and ends-justify-meansism, but an understanding of how these struggles between compassion and harshness arise
If I didn’t quite find this as wondrous as that first book, my slight disappointment therefore reducing it to four star, I shall certainly be happily waiting for Caldwell’s third book to appear
I’m guessing this will probably be around 2018.
And as i have a huge backlog of unread books, as I am unable to resist stockpiling all the interesting bookiness going, that is fine!