(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 15, 2003)"Ironies are the way of the world, and now that I am an old woman I tell you with certainty that those who presume to lift another are most often in need of being raised themselves."
This rip-roaring, old-fashioned saga is pure story from beginning to end, a novel which quickly engages the reader with its excitement and never lets up -- a complete escape, however brief, from the real world. Set from 1949 to 1950, with an epilogue which brings the characters up to date in 2001, the novel uses the political tensions of the mountainous area where Kashmir, the Soviet Union, Outer Mongolia, Tibet, Afghanistan, and China converge as the catalyst for the action. Aidan Shaw, a Chinese/American journalist with Socialist/Communist leanings, disappears while on a story, and his wife and young son find themselves at the mercy of consulates, embassies, and intelligence services, none of which can give adequate information as to his fate. A character whose presence is made real primarily through his absence, Aidan hovers in the background as a ghostly presence throughout the novel while his wife, young son, and friends try to uncover the true story of his disappearance.
Kashmir has been at war for two years, following the Partition which created Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, and both countries are fighting for control of Kashmir; a United Nations Peace Commission is trying to broker an end to the warfare. The Chinese Communists are battling the Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-shek, for control of the area just to the north of the disputed province; the Soviets are fighting both the Nationalists and the British and trying to establish their own sphere of influence; tribal warlords, who recognize no external governments, are fighting against all foreigners; and the Americans are building an airbase in the area. Both the British and the Americans have intelligence operatives working undercover, and the Australians are looking to become players on the international stage with their own intelligence network.
Joanna Shaw, Aidan's wife, does not believe the official story that Aidan died in a plane crash while en route to interview UN peacekeepers. Packing up her young son, she goes to Srinagar in search of information. Lawrence Malcolm, the Australian friend whose "hot tip" to Aidan inspired him to undertake his journey, accompanies her, bringing along Kamla, a street child Joanna has "rescued" and whose original home may have been the mountains through which they are traveling. When Joanna learns of a sighting of Aidan, who may be in the company of Alice James, a young woman reporter, she begins several difficult weeks trekking, first to the site of the purported plane crash and then with a caravan through mountains and desert, always just a few days behind sightings of her husband.
Paralleling the story of Joanna's search for Aidan is the story of Kamla, the street child with turquoise blue eyes, whose first person account of life on the streets of Delhi and her "rescue" by Joanna broadens the scope and shows the contrasts between those who hold the life of one individual to be paramount, such as Joanna, and those for whom survival is such a day-to-day struggle that soft feelings can be regarded as a weakness. As Kamla becomes part of the family, her observations about Joanna, Joanna's values, and "those who presume to lift another" give perspective to the search for Aidan and show that Joanna's goals, however well-meaning, are at least as selfish as they are altruistic. As Joanna, her son Simon, Kamla, and Lawrence Malcolm deal with the uncertainties of their lives, both those regarding Aidan and the even more pressing uncertainties of their daily existence, we see that each character is essentially alone -- the victim of external circumstances. Those who survive are those who can accept facts and act upon them without looking for "impossible goodness."
Coincidence plays a big role in this romantic, and at times melodramatic, novel, which uses the search for Aidan as the vehicle through which the plot progresses. Kamla, coincidentally, comes from the area Joanna plans to scour for information about Aidan, and this 12-year-old child remembers the language, though she has not heard or spoken it since she was five. When Lawrence needs visas for China, very difficult to obtain, the consular official is someone whose life he has saved. Kamla, living in an area far distant from where she was when "rescued" by Joanna, buys a mirror from an itinerant salesman, and he just happens to be someone she knew in her old life. Lawrence goes to visit Akbar, who has helped them in the past, and the door is opened by Tot, the Sherpa guide they had in the mountains when they were searching for Aidan. All these coincidences are necessary to make the plot work, and readers totally involved in the story probably will not find them distracting.
The action moves from Delhi to Srinagar and the mountains around Sinkiang, and eventually includes Hong Kong, Calcutta, Milwaukee, and Washington. Liu keeps the pace moving smartly, with important details revealed at each location so that the search for Aidan never flags. The past continually impinges on the present, as it does in real life, and characters overlap and reappear as the machinations of governments and intelligence agencies, along with random external events, affect the personal lives of individuals.
As in any plot-driven novel, we learn as much about the characters as we need to know, though the author does not dwell on psychological motivations. Aidan remains a cipher, and Joanna's transformation from idealist to more self-absorbed pragmatist is not explained in any detail. Of greater consequence is the author's belief that "Truth, in the end, requires fact, illusion, faith -- alone each is equally incomplete." The conclusion, which mirrors this belief, destroys the reader's own illusions as the facts unfold, and it is not one in which everything is resolved as the reader might expect or hope. All the reader can do is trust that the choices the characters make are the best they can do at the time; the Epilogue reveals the long-term "truth" and its effects.
"What mattered most in the end," Kamla says, "was not right or wrong. It was not politics or fidelity or even understanding. Certainly it was not the act of rescue. It was simply our mutual ineptitude at love." For readers who believe that fidelity and understanding are paramount values and who believe that there is more to our relationships than "mutual ineptitude at love," the ending will be a surprise, and perhaps not a welcome one. Book clubs should have fun analyzing why the author has chosen to end the book as she does.
- Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Flash House at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Solitaire (1979; reprinted 2000)
- Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders (February 2007)
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- The official Web site for Aimee Liu
- Voices from the Gap on Aimee Liu
- The Bookshelf Online review of Cloud Mountain
- Aimee E. Liu on Flash House
- DesiJournal.com review of Flash House
- Bookloons review of Flash House
- Hybrid Magazine review of Flash House
- The Age review of Flash House
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About the Author:
Aimee Liu was born in 1953 and grew up in Connecticut. Liu entered Yale College in 1971. She was selected as a Scholar of the House and graduated magna cum laude in 1975, with a BA in fine art. Before writing full time, Liu worked as a fashion model, flight attendant and associate producer of NBC's Today Show.
At the age of 23, Liu wrote her first book, which was a memoir. Solitaire is the narrative of Liu's own affliction with and recovery from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that usually strikes young middle- to upper-class women between the ages of thirteen and thirty. Liu suffered from anorexia for eight years, beginning at age thirteen and continuing until she was twenty-one. She attributes writing this book to pulling her out of the final stages of anorexia. With the encouragement from her agent, she turned her energy to magazine editing and co-authoring nonfiction self-help books for the next ten years.
With the Tienanmen Square Massacre in 1989, Liu was prompted to write her first novel, Face, in which, like the heroine of the book, Liu is one-quarter Chinese and had not closely examined her Chinese heritage until later in life. Her second novel, Cloud Mountain, had a similar theme but is based on her grandparents' interracial marriage.
Liu served as 2002 President of PEN USA, a national organization of writers dedicated to defending and promoting literary freedom of expression. She is currently Executive Vice President of PEN USA.
Aimee Liu resides in Los Angeles, California with her husband, Martin Fink, and her son.